TCSD Conversation: August 2017 – Hiro Iwamoto

Guide Rich Anderson and Hiro Iwamoto ready to race Strongman Miyakojima.

TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent

I had the pleasure recently of talking triathlon with TCSD member Hiro Iwamoto.  Hiro has led an amazing life.  His story is sure to inspire you when you face your next challenge.  I am so glad I had the chance to get to know him and I know you will feel the same way once you hear his story.

Craig: When did you lose your sight and what was the cause?

Hiro: I was born in Kumamoto, Japan, and during elementary school, like many other boys I wanted to be a professional baseball player. So I would always play baseball with my friends after school. Then when I was 13 I realized I was losing my sight for the first time as I was playing baseball with my friends.  I could not catch the ball because I could not see it.  Everyone on my team started blaming me when we lost a game.  But even in that kind of situation, I could not tell them that I couldn’t see.  I did not want them to know that I was losing my sight.

After a while, I started bumping into things as I was walking.  My parents took me to every eye doctor they could think of, but none of the doctors could figure out the cause of my blindness.  This meant that there was no treatment, no cure for my sight loss.

Craig: How did you adjust to life without sight?

Hiro: I was so scared, and I felt hopeless when I thought about my future.  I wondered how my future was going to be.  When I could not even put toothpaste on my toothbrush, I did not want to deal with my blindness anymore.  I did not want to go on living asking for help all the time.

On August 13th, 1982, it was a very hot day, the sun was shining, and a lot of cicadas were making sound, as I headed to a bridge in my hometown of Ushibuka to commit suicide, to terminate my life.

When I got there, I took off my shoes and put both my hands and right foot on the rail, but could not pull myself up over the rail, I tried again and again, but could not go over the rail. It’s not that I didn’t have enough strength to jump, but it felt like some unknown force was preventing me from jumping.

After struggling for a while, I got so tired since I could not sleep at all the night before.  I decided to take a nap on a bench in a park nearby.  During the nap, I had a dream and received a message from my uncle who had died 5 years before and he said to me “You have to live, do not end your own life. You became blind for a purpose. You became blind so you can encourage and inspire people who have lost meaning in their lives. I want you to keep pressing on and experience how wonderful life can be.”

My uncle loved me so much as he would have adopted me if he didn’t have cancer.  I gave up jumping off from the bridge and went back to my house.  I returned to find that things were still the same, I still spilled toothpaste on my hand, spilled Miso soup on my lap, hit my head on the corner of my desk, etc.  However, even in my daily struggles, I never thought about suicide again, because the message from my uncle was kept in a small part of my brain, and telling me that there is a meaning for all of this.  Slowly but surely, I started to gain confidence and courage.

Craig: What sports did you do after losing your sight?

Hiro: After I became totally blind at 16, I wanted to find a sport in which I could compete equally with the sighted, so I began Judo. The first training I had to do was to lay on my back on the tatami mat and hit the mat with my arms.  This was to train my reflex after being thrown by an opponent. I had to do this same training for a couple months and I started become bored and almost quit. But this experience taught me the importance of Kata, or form/discipline, in sports. And there was an incident where my Judo training helped my a great deal. In my early twenties, I was in San Francisco studying special education at San Francisco State. One day I was walking in downtown SF near Poway Station, and a pickpocket took my wallet and started running. Thanks to my Judo training, I was able to instinctively grab his shirt and do a Osotogari (threw him down on the ground), and handed him over to the police who happened to be near. For your own safety, you should not try to rob a blind guy.

Craig: What prompted your move to the USA?

Hiro: After returning from San Francisco State, I didn’t want to lose my English so I began attending an English class. My English teacher introduced me to her friend Karen, who would become my wife. She and I would go hiking along with classmates and the teacher from the English class and we grew closer as we got to know each other more. We eventually began dating and got married on May of 1996. Sorry, I am a traditional Japanese male so I don’t remember much of the details…I hope my wife is not reading this.

After getting married, we lived in Chiba prefecture, and there was a yacht harbor close to our home called Inage yacht harbor. On our evening walk we found a rental yacht shop. Karen was already an experienced sailor as she had been competing in races from middle to high school. Although I had no prior sailing experience, we decided to rent a yacht and give it a shot together. This was how I started sailing.

In 2005 our daughter Leena was born, and my wife and I began to discuss whether staying in Japan or moving to the States would be the best for our daughter. After we weighed the advantages and disadvantages of the two countries, we decided that that it was best for our daughter to move to the States. So in 2006 we moved to San Diego.

Craig: What happened during the challenge you began on June 16, 2013?

Hiro: As a blind sailor, I began dreaming of sailing across the Pacific, the biggest ocean in the world, sailing from Japan to America with one other sighted person.  I started sharing about my dream and passion everywhere I would go, and that helped lead me to the right people and eventually I was sponsored.

Mr. Shinbo who is a newscaster for Yomiuri TV in Japan offered to be my sailing partner for my challenge, and Yomiuri TV company and other companies became our sponsors.  I didn’t expect that my dream would come true so quickly.

About three thousand people including many Tsunami survivors came to the port to cheer us on, and a Japanese Olympic female marathon runner, Kyu-chan (Naoko Takahashi), who won gold in the Sydney Olympics, came as a guest and we received her handmade bento lunch, etc.  I was so happy.  I had never felt as excited in my life as I was that moment when we left the port of Onahama in Fukushima.

It was my idea to leave from Onahama port in Fukushima because I wanted to encourage the people there and be encouraged by them.  We asked the people living there to write a letter to their family members and friends whose lives were lost in the Tsunami, and we planned to read the letters before putting them into the ocean.  I was hoping that writing a letter would help them release their hardship, stress, and recover from their grief.

On the sixth day around 7:20 in the morning, I heard something bumping on our boat three times, boom, boom, boom, Mr. Shinbo asked if those were waves hitting our boat, and I answered I don’t think so.

When I heard the sound and felt the boat shake, I thought we had a collision with a whale.  I took two gallons of water from the bottom and the emergency bag which contained a satellite phone, GPS and a VHF radio. Our team made a distress call to the Japanese Coast Guard. We then abandoned our boat and went overboard on our life raft amid 15 foot waves and 30 knot winds. At the time of the collision, we were already 700 miles out in the ocean and there was also a typhoon heading over our direction.

Since the Coast Guard couldn’t get to us in time to rescue us from the storm and we were out of range of a helicopter, they dispatched the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). The JMSDF sent out a US-2 rescue aircraft (ShinMaywa US-2), but the first US-2 could not make a landing because of the high waves (the maximum height of waves it could land on is 10ft) and they were running out of fuel so after they circled over us trying to make a landing, they had to retreat. We felt hopeless and terrified when that first aircraft faded into the distance. Then 3 hours later, a second US-2 came. The pilot risked a dangerous landing to save us, and we were rescued after being stranded for 11 hours in the middle of the ocean.

A press conference was held right after we were rescued and we arrived at Atsugi base, and a reporter asked me what I thought our boat bumped into.  I believe I received a sixth sense in exchange for my sight loss and by then I knew it was a whale that hit our boat.  Later we had experts confirm through the video left on one of our onboard cameras (we took out the SD card before we abandoned ship) that it was indeed a blue whale, approximately 50 foot big.

Six days before this incident when we sailed out from Fukushima, I was at the highest point of my life, but within seconds I went straight down to a low point, in front of about 100 media people.  I heard people say and was even told directly that it was a stupid plan for a totally blind person to try to sail across the Pacific.  For a while I couldn’t see the purpose for this collision but before long I realized that this setback will make my future success 100 times even 1000 times bigger.

The more I thought about these facts, the more I was thankful for just being alive.  I also took the meaning of this event this way, God gave me a challenge to see if I could recover from this frightful experience, similar to what the Tsunami victims experienced.  Ever since I found the meaning of the collision, I have been thankful for what happened.  I started saying the same things I have heard from people who were going through their difficulties after the natural disaster in Fukushima and Kumamoto which is “I am thankful for just being alive, everything else is not a big deal.”

Craig: After your near death experience, it makes sense that you would have a legitimate fear of water.  What have you done to overcome that fear?

Hiro: When I was searching for a way to overcome my fear of the ocean, DJ Rausa whom I met through the San Diego Business Group recommended triathlon. He offered to be my guide and not long after that we began training together.

The most difficult part for me was swimming in the ocean. When I’m practicing at the pool I could feel along the lane rope and make sure that I’m going straight, and I could guess the distance from the wall by counting my strokes. But this is not possible in the ocean. So we use a rubber tube about 4 feet long and tie it around our waist. I have to figure out which direction my guide is going by the tension of the tube. I’m swimming to DJ’s right, so if the tension of the tube loosens, it means I’m leaning too far to the left, so I have to adjust my position to the right. If the tension tightens, I have to adjust to the left.

When we’re on the bike or running, I can communicate easily with my guide, but in the water I cannot see, hear, or speak. When I was starting out, sometimes I panicked as I worried what will happen if the tube connecting us suddenly broke off. Every 2 or 3 strokes I would raise my head and check if DJ was still next to me, so we barely moved forward. This went on for a while but slowly I got used to it and in October 2014, I finished my first race at the Mission Bay Triathlon. I still clearly remember that excitement I felt when I reached the goal.

Craig: You have raced 10 triathlons in your career which stretches from the 2014 Mission Bay Triathlon to the 2017 Oceanside 70.3 and Strongman Miyakojima in Japan.  What triathlon accomplishments give you the most pride?

Hiro: In April of 2016 I joined the Blind Stokers Club (BSC) which provided many training opportunities to work on my cycling. At one event I was able to ride for 50 miles for the first time. I thought to myself, “if I could ride 6 more miles, it would be the same distance as a Half Ironman”, and that boosted my confidence and lit a fire inside of me to keep challenging. From then I began training for the Chula Vista Challenge Half Iron Triathlon that was in August. I also competed in the San Diego International Triathlon (SDIT) and the Carlsbad Triathlon as I prepared for the Chula Vista Challenge.

SDIT was the first time I did a floating start, so just keeping afloat was a struggle for me and I used up most of my energy before the race even began. It was also difficult for me to keep facing the same direction while floating, so I was anxious and kept on asking my guide if I was facing the right direction. A couple of minutes after the race began, the next wave of swimmers approached from behind us and they probably didn’t notice that I was blind and tethered to my guide, so they kicked my head and grabbed my shoulder as they tried to get past us, and at that point I felt like giving up, but somehow I was able to get back in focus and finish the race.

The Carlsbad Triathlon was my first ocean swim experience. No matter how hard I swam, the waves kept pushing me back, and the fact that the waves were keeping me from moving forward exhausted me both physically and mentally. But my guides Rich Anderson and Patsie Dephney cheered me on and I was able to complete the swim.

Less than a month away from the Chula Vista Challenge, I found out that Rich was competing in Ironman Boulder. The race was a week before the CVC and I was concerned about Rich’s physical condition, so I felt the need to find another guide. My other guide DJ had a back injury so he was not available and I wasn’t able to find anyone through BSC. I was worried that despite all the training I did, I would not be able to compete in the race. For us blind triathletes, no matter how much we are prepared and want to compete in a race, it is not possible without a guide. I was feeling a little down when I went to a friend’s house party where I happened to meet Greg Smeltzer. I told Greg my desire to compete in the CVC and begged him to be by guide. He kindly accepted, and although we only had time to train together twice, we were able to enter the race. I couldn’t believe that he had only two prior experiences as a guide as he was so calm and stable the whole time we were practicing.

The weather was very hot on the day of the race and while running I began to get so nauseous that I almost threw up and couldn’t even swallow the nutrition gel, but with Greg’s help I was able to finish the race. Usually after I finish a race, I would immediately head over to the beer tent, but that day I didn’t have any energy left so I went home exhausted and sank into my bed. During the race, as I was running and feeling nauseous, I said to myself, “why did I even get into this agonizing sport” and was getting mad at myself. I even thought I would never do triathlon again. But a couple of days later, as I reflected on the joy of reaching the goal that day, I began to think that if I could complete a half, maybe I could take the next step and challenge a longer distance.

Before long, I had registered to compete at the All Japan Triathlon Miyakojima (also known as Strongman Miyakojima, Swim 1.9mi, Bike 98mi, Run 26.2mi) in April 2017, which is the most popular race in Japan, and the upcoming Ironman Arizona in November 2017.

Also as part of my training for the race in Miyakojima, I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Oceanside. For me, the heart crushing uphill ride that everyone was talking about was the most difficult part of the race. I had been practicing on the hills in Torrey Pines, but the hill on this course was much steeper. No matter how hard we pedaled, our speed would not go up but instead our legs were becoming sore and our speed kept slowing down. If we were to stop, it would have been impossible to pedal out again because of the steepness of the hill, so we would have to walk our bike to the top. There were actually some racers around us who were doing this. But we were able to keep pedaling and by the time we made it to the top my legs were shaking and I was worried if I could even run. As we began running, I could barely move my feet forward and didn’t think I could keep running for 13 miles, but after we passed 3 miles I began feeling lighter and we were able to make it to the goal. This was the first time I competed in an official Ironman event, so I was overwhelmed by the energy of all the participants and the big crowd that was cheering us on, and the excitement I felt when I finished the race was even greater than the previous races I’ve been in. Many people saw me during the race and afterwards told me that seeing me compete gave them inspiration and encouragement, that they were moved to see me. As I heard from these people I remembered the voice I heard when I was 16 and tried to kill myself, the voice that told me to keep living to give hope to others, and the people that day helped me realize that the message I lived by for all these years had come true and was being fulfilled.

Along with my guides Rich and Patsie, I departed from LAX to Japan to get there a week before The Miyakojima Triathlon. I thought we would need to spend at least a week to get used to the humid climate and get rid of the jet lag.

We arrived and saw that all over the island of Miyakojima, there were posters with the name of the race “STRONGMAN” (a title given to everyone who finishes the race) written on it, and you could tell that this event was special for the people of the Miyakojima and the whole island was involved in the event. I realized that I had made the right decision in getting there early when we began training on the first day we arrived, as the hot and humid weather sapped us of our energy much more quickly than the mild climate of San Diego. I became nervous as I wondered what the weather would be like on the day of the race. There was another thing that I was concerned about. The Miyakojima Triathlon is known for its tradition of beginning with a mass wave start instead of a regular wave start. This means that all 1500 participants begin swimming at once. Even with a regular wave start people would kick and climb over me from behind, so I was very worried that all these people would be swimming around me.

On the day of the race, at the sound of a horn everyone began going into the water one by one. Rich and I started on the outer edge close to the front. The race began and just as I expected, I could barely move with all the people around me. People began climbing over the rubber tube that tethered me and my guide, some of them shoved me down and I swallowed some seawater, and we were almost pushed out of the swimming course. We would be disqualified if we swam off course, so we moved inward to the center, but there it was even more difficult to swim. Then suddenly something slammed my face real hard. It seemed to have been someone’s heel. My lip started bleeding. With the taste of blood in my mouth, I kept crawling slowly and tried my best to move forward. After we passed the 400 meter mark the course began to widen and I was finally able to swim freely. At that point another concern came to mind and that was to finish the swim before the 1 hour 50 minute time limit. We sped up as we tried to regain the time we lost. We came all the way from the States so I didn’t want us to disqualify at the swim stage. We were able to finish the swim 5 minutes before the time limit.

Although the distance of the swimming and cycling stage is a little shorter than a full Ironman, the time limit for this 126 mile race is 13 hours and 30 minutes, which is 3 hours and 30 minutes less than a full Ironman. With the time limit in mind, we pedaled as fast as we could. The wind was strong and there were a lot of uphills and downhills, also we had to add air to our front tire near the 10km mark, but we were able to finish the cycling stage.

Then we transitioned to the running stage, but the course was inland so there was no wind and the climate was so hot and humid. And about 20km in my guide started to get sick. Although he kept running for me about 10km more, we had to stop around 30km so unfortunately we did not quite finish.

For me, triathlon is similar to sailing across the Pacific as they both represent life itself. Sometimes we can cruise along easily while other times we struggle to barely move forward, and after a period of pain comes a period of joy. I think that’s why I’ve been able to continue doing triathlon and not give up on my sailing challenge across the Pacific. And in case you were wondering, I’m training for Ironman Arizona in November of this year.

Craig: What qualities make up a good guide for a blind triathlete?

Hiro: I’ve heard that a guide should be at least 15-20% faster than you are. My times are 50 minutes for a 1.2 mile swim, 3.5 hours for a 56 mile bike, and 2.5 hours for a 13 mile run.  I think a good guide needs to give an accurate description of the surroundings during the race. He or she also needs to run/swim/bike at the same pace. Someone that could help you reach your full potential. Currently my main guides are Rich Anderson and Greg Smeltzer. I would describe Rich as a completer and Greg as a competitor. Rich is focused on finishing the race. He taught me the importance of taking each stroke, pedal, or step one at a time until you reach the goal. Greg is focused on getting the best time possible. He has taught me to push my own limits to achieve the best results.

Craig: I spoke with your guides Greg and Rich and asked them what their experience been like to serve as your guide?

Greg: I would say my initial reluctance stemmed from not being strong or fast enough. After speaking again with Hiro we determined that I was 20% (I think this is the formula he uses to determine) faster than what he was pacing at so we would be fine. He was training for Chula Vista Challenge and had Rich as a guide, but Rich had done Ironman Boulder and was not going to be recovered enough to guide. Hiro asked me and we had just two weeks to prepare. We met for a swim and that went well, no problems tethered. We went on I think one or two bike rides and same for running. We completed the race with no issues although the many turns on that course and the sidewalk run did almost take us out a few times. When we finished though, the feeling was incomparable to any race I had done before. We went to a development camp for blind athletes a few months later and I think one of the most important things I took away was that we as guides are a tool for the athlete, like a pair of shoes or bike. Like many people have multiple pairs of shoes or different bikes for different runs and rides, a blind athlete will benefit greatly from being able to access multiple guides for different workouts.

We are now training for Ironman Arizona and we try to meet 3-4 times in one week, alternating weeks.  I have gained a whole new perspective on triathlon, and life by guiding and would recommend others trying as well.

Rich:  When I joined the San Diego blind stokers club I wanted to obviously be able to captain someone that needed help to enjoy a hobby/activity that they loved. In the back of my mind I was really hoping that I would be able to meet someone visually impaired that wanted to try a triathlon. After only a few months as a member I was introduced to Hiro. He was very excited about the idea of doing triathlons regularly and the training involved. I could have not asked for a better person to be paired with. Not only did he keep us on a regular training schedule, he was an engaging training partner. Hiro was always pushing us, talking all the time and after a while one starts to forget that he is blind. It was amazing to watch how someone with no vision was really so independent. I will always remember the races that we did and the cheers we got. I am a middle to back of the pack triathlete with little fanfare, but guiding Hiro thru races was so much fun to be next to him receiving such loud cheers and encouragement. The icing on the cake was the times I would get to guide him up onto the podium to get his medal for placing in the Challenged athlete division.

Craig: How can people contact you if they would like to learn more about guiding you?

Hiro: Right now I’m trying to connect with as many guides as possible. The reason for this is that having only one or two guides puts a lot of pressure/burden on the guide. Having more guides would lighten the burden for the individual guides. It’s also better to have more guides in case my current guide gets injured or are not able to race for some other reason. Also if possible, I’m looking not only for guides but also for rides, for people that could provide transportation. The best way to reach me is through email at

Craig: What are some of the funny things that happen around a blind guy in a triathlon?

Hiro: When people ask me how a blind guy like me can ride a bike, I would tell them that I ride in front of the tandem and steer while my guide tells me which direction to go. Most people actually believe me and don’t realize that it’s a joke.

Another thing I do on the bike is whenever my legs become heavy while pedaling, I ask the other racers around me if my guide is really pedaling, and they would get in on the joke and tell me “no, he’s not!”

Sometimes when I tell my guide I don’t think I can go any further, he would tell me that there is a beautiful woman in front of us so we should just follow her. Then somehow I would regain my energy.

Craig: What are your favorite benefits of being a TCSD member?

Hiro: I am amazed at the great community that the TCSD has for its members. I’ve received so much motivation and encouragement from the people I met through TCSD.

I wouldn’t have been able to reach the level I am at right now without all the training programs that the TCSD provides including track workouts, master swim, Del Mar open water swim, and the monthly Aquathlon. I think I would have been way behind if I were just training on my own. I greatly appreciate all the coaches and organizers of TCSD for helping me out and providing these resources.

Craig: What do you do for a living?

Hiro: I practice a therapy based on acupuncture and oriental medicine that I invented called Shishijutsu. My office is located in Kearny Mesa and I see all kinds of clients with conditions ranging from sports injuries to insomnia.

In my work as a life coach, I give speeches and one on one coaching sessions based on my own experience of overcoming my disability. I travel several times a year to Japan to give speeches and seminars. I’m planning to expand my work as a life coach here in the States as well. Please feel free to contact me if you or your organization are interested.

Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?

Hiro: I have been training for the Ironman Arizona 140.6 full triathlon this November.

Also my dream is to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona.

Craig: Hiro, thank you so much for telling us your story.  Your fan club just got a lot bigger.  The entire TCSD will be cheering for you to complete Ironman Arizona and to one day cross the finish line in Kona.  It is people like you that make the TCSD the best club on the planet!

Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach.  Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or

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USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships

Craig Zelent volunteering with Holly Stroschine (left) and Anne Rogers (right)

7th place men’s 55-59 age group

On August 12th I raced the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in Omaha, NE.  My pie in the sky goal was to place top 10 in my age group and get on the podium.  The podium goes 10 deep at Nationals.  I was thrilled with my result as I placed 7th out of 102 men in the 55-59 age group.  This ties my best performance at the Olympic distance Nationals as I was also 7th back in 2002.

My trip to Omaha started by volunteering at the packet pick up on Friday morning.  I was joined by my TCSD friends Holly Stroschine and Anne Rogers.  It is always good to give back to the sport by volunteering. 

The 1.5K (0.93 mile) swim was held in Carter Lake.  The water temperature was 80 degrees so no wetsuits would be allowed.  For safety reasons, they won’t let you wear a wetsuit if the water temperature is over 78.  I’m not the greatest swimmer in the world and the wetsuit would help me, but I took the non wetsuit swim as good news.  I figured I could put some time on the weaker swimmers that wetsuits would have really helped.  The air temperature peaked out during my race in the upper 70’s so it was very comfortable racing conditions.  I swam 27:57, putting me in 20th place.  I was 52 seconds slower than in 2016, but I felt I had a really good swim.

The 40K (24.8 mile) bike course was an out and back.  There was 1 hard climb on the way out that required 1st gear for ¼ mile.  The uphill grade on that section on the way back was a bit longer, but not nearly as steep.  I had a very solid bike performance as my split was 1:10:12 (21.2 mph).  This was 13 seconds better than 2016.  It was the 48th best bike split and it dropped me to 28th place.  I felt great and was very much in control of my race.

They changed the run course for 2017.  The 2016 version was 1 out and back for the entire 10K (6.2 miles).  The 2017 version was 2 out and backs.  2017 was much better as we had more opportunity to gauge our competitors and it seemed like there were twice as many spectators.  By the 2K mark I remember seeing 1 of the guys in my age group walking back.  He was 1 of the top athletes in our age group and he had a 10+ minute lead on me to start the run, but he was now injured and out of the race.  It reminded me how tricky it can be to get thru all the training and the actual race in 1 piece.  Triathlon can be very humbling.  I kept pushing on as aggressively as possible.  I had the best run of my triathlon career, relative to my age group.  My run split was 37:18 (6:01/mile) and fastest in the age group by 2:33.  My finish time was 2:20:05.  And I did qualify for the 2018 Olympic distance World Championships in Gold Coast, Australia.  I can’t wait to represent Team USA once again. 

I am thankful for each race – the good ones and the bad ones.  I wish I was a better swimmer and cyclist, but I gratefully accept the skills that I do have.  God has really blessed me.

To see my pictures from this race, click on this link:

Living the life…

Craig Zelent  

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All American Sprint Finish

I just got this photo from the 2016 ITU Triathlon World Championships in Cozumel last year.  This was my sprint finish with fellow American Clint Dowd.  I ran into Clint 2 weeks ago at Nationals and he had this photo for me.  I had no idea the photo existed.  Clint and I both had the exact same finish time, but he edged me out with a better lean at the end.  My run split for the 10K was 42:19 while Clint’s was 44:55.  I made the mistake of catching him with about 100 meters to go.  That woke the beast and we had this epic sprint to the line.  Clint said his heart rate peaked at 191 at the finish line.  I’m sure mine was in the same neighborhood.

We both had good races.  Clint finished 16th and I was 17th in the men’s 50-54 age group.  I always want to win.  I wish I could do that race over again.  I would have passed Clint much later to give him no chance to answer.  Oh well.  But that’s not the point.  The point is this is such a cool photo – both carrying American flags and both leaving it all on the race course.  I love moments like that.

Living the life…

Posted in 2016, Triathlon | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

TCSD Conversation: July 2017 – Ian Kelly

Ian finishing Vineman 70.3

TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent

I had the real pleasure of talking triathlon with Ian Kelly.  Not only did I get to know this great guy in the process, but I learned some funny new words.  Among other things, Ian leads the TCSD Beginning Open Water Swim workouts as well as serves as a race referee.  I know you’ll enjoy his story.

Craig: What sports did you participate in while growing up?

Ian: I never really thought of myself as an ‘athletic’ type, and often had the experience of being the last one picked (being either the weird or uncoordinated kid, relative to who else was around) when the neighbourhood was dividing up for touch football in the street. From elementary school through high school I played soccer. I proved too slow to be a striker, and mediocre at mid-field, but eventually discovered strengths at fullback, and then really had a blast as keeper. I was working toward the varsity team at school, but about that time the Scottish part of me took over. My mom had taught me ballroom dancing from early childhood (often standing on her feet until I figured things out) and in my sophomore year I was introduced to Highland dancing, sort of Gaelic frenzy contained within the niceties of ballet. I was hooked and quickly discovered that under my strongly B-type personality lurks a competitive A-type. I managed to have a successful eight-year competitive career that ended with me doing well in the US Western Regional Championships. The last few years of that were years at UCSD, where I briefly took up fencing (foil). With my dancing background, the footwork was easy for me, and opponents were often shocked to discover how much space I could cover in a flash. Once that initial shock wore off, however, they realised that my blade-work was an unmitigated disaster and they rapidly ticked off points against me. In dancing, I was driven to keep progressing into nationals and (hopefully) worlds, but the years of joint-pounding took a toll and the morning after my last event, I could scarcely get out of bed; not a positive sign for a 23-year old. Dancing is as close to flying that a human will ever attain, and I am not too proud to admit that I cried over that loss. I transitioned into being a cycling weekend warrior (and not very dedicated at that) and that was pretty much my joint-friendly athletic outlet for early adulthood.

Craig: What led to your first triathlon and what kind of experience did you have?

Ian: I was the poster-child for what not to do for training and racing. In mid-2005, my post-graduate studies meant that just about the only activity I had time for was a Saturday morning spin class. About 40-minutes into the class we would all be tired and hoping vaguely for an early end and a hot caffeinated beverage. The leader would then start this inspirational patter about how the only difference between us and endurance athletes was our mental focus. ‘Balderdash,’ I thought, because surely there must be a point at which your body determines where to make an end. I went to my physician for a check-up and demanded a series of knee x-rays to see just how bad the knees looked. Ah, the joys of youth; my joints had relatively normalised and I was otherwise in fair shape. I resolved to enter the most impossible feat I could imagine: a sprint triathlon. The gym had a copy of Competitor magazine in which I found an advert for the Mission Bay Tri. I went online and found an eight-week sprint training program; perfect timing for the race in early October. The cycling aspect was no worry for me. I had learned to swim as a kid (though in retrospect, I knew how not to drown) so felt naively confident that I just needed to get used to the distance. In high school, I had managed a sub-6:30 mile run. Suppressing the memories of countless, drudging laps around a hot, dusty track was going to take work, and to keep going for a whole 5k seemed impossible.

I started off on my training plan, completely on my own. I had never heard of TCSD, and the experience would have been a thousand times easier had I had the support and comradery that I discovered with the Club in 2008, but that’s getting ahead of the story. Cycling was certainly the easiest for me, and most enjoyable though the concept of actual ‘bike handling skills’ had not dawned on me at that point. My run workouts consisted of a treadmill at the gym, and I remember the real joy of finally hitting three miles without stopping. Brick workouts were not written into the plan, and so I had no real notion of how my legs were going to react after T2. Swimming turned into the real struggle. I could make two lengths of the pool (50m total), but then I was finished. Not knowing what else to do, I maintained a program of thrashing the water harder and harder. I became highly efficient at thrashing, but not so much at swimming. And then came the whole ‘open water’ issue. A friend loaned me her husband’s spring surf suit, which I took down to De Anza Cove twice with mixed results.

Come race day, I was vaguely excited about getting down to the expo to pick up my registration packet, and I wanted to listen in to the course talk to figure out how all this ‘racing’ stuff happens. During the talk, the question of wetsuits came up and spring suits, in particular. The expert advice was not comforting, so I dashed over to the Xterra booth and hired a blue full suit for the weekend. On race morning, once I had my transition area laid out like they had showed at the expo, I figured it was time to get into my wetsuit for the first time. As I picked it up and finally looked at it more closely, I realised it was inside out! So much for it being easy for the friend who had come along to pick me out of the sea of black! As I walked toward the water, I watched the waves ahead of me out in the water for quite some time before the gun went off. I had no idea how I was going to tread water for that long! Just swimming that distance was daunting, but then to be exhausted before I even started seemed to doom the morning. I toughed it out, made it into the water, and was surprised to find myself floating instead of treading water. Problem one sorted out. When the gun went off, I duly started thrashing the water, but something was wrong; I could not breath right. My feet were way high up in the water and that pushed my face deeper into the water. After flailing for an eternity that turned out to be about 50m, I rolled onto my back, and used my elementary backstroke for the next 350m. Crude but effective. Problem two sorted out! The bike portion did go smoothly enough, though who knew that pulling a cycling jersey over my wet torso would take so long? Getting on to the run course was simple enough, but then my legs suddenly seemed to be made of concrete and took a considerable amount of coaxing to keep moving. It took a mile or so to work the kinks out, but out they went and I was ecstatic to cross the finish line. It had been a major challenge for me, and I completed it the weekend before my 40th birthday. I could not tell you the finish time. Honestly, it did not matter to me. I had proven the point: it’s all in your head. That central lesson forms the nexus of everything, even today. My friend wisely suggested that I not try that again until I had graduated, so I took leave of triathlon for a few years.

Craig: You returned to triathlon after completing your PhD.  Open water swimming was a major challenge for you.  What did you do to address that?

Ian: When I was ready to get back to triathlon in January 2008, shades of the Mission Bay swim still haunted me, and I knew that I needed to sort out my swimming. I needed a proper wetsuit and I needed to stop thrashing my way through the water. In doing some research, I discovered that this group called TCSD offered phenomenal wetsuit discounts, so I joined and hied myself to Xterra.  (“hied” is one of Ian’s funny words that means “hurried” or “rushed”.)

The newsgroup let me know about the swimming program at the Jewish Community Centre, and so I began at attend the ‘technique lanes’ in about February 2008. The notion that swimming could be smooth and even calming came like a thunder bolt. In a relatively short time, I was covering 400 yards each session without too much effort. Then came 25 April with the news that Dave Martin had been killed off Fletcher Cove (Solana Beach). That really freaked me out, as I had registered for the Spring Sprint just a week or two later. Back in the open water in a wetsuit I really had not trained with and thoughts of Dave created another ‘challenged’ swim portion.

The newsgroup made mention of a Thursday evening swim oriented to beginners. Steve Tally started this off and subsequently handed it off to Jonathan ‘JJ’ Jefferson, who was leading it when I first attended. I let JJ know right off the bat that I was a pretty freaked out, and his advice on the question of big fishies did help. He suggested going out into the bay to swim, and envision the biggest set of teeth imaginable coming up from the depths to get me. That was the last thing I wanted to think about, but…he was the expert, right? Out I went and did as he said. I am not sure that I would offer the same advice, but the fact is that the thought has not crossed my mind since then. With the mental side of things resolved, notions from Terry Laughlin’s books, JCC swims, and JJ helped me to develop a strong, fluid stroke that, when I push, can keep me moving at about 1:10 per 100m. The entire experience, stroke, and philosophy really came home to me one evening at a TCSD meeting where Lynne Cox, a world-record holding endurance swimmer, talked about how one must swim with the water, not in it.

The Thursday BOWS (Beginner Open Water Swim) became something of a home to me. JJ was a firm believer in keeping things moving forward, growing, and adapting, so he intended to establish a pattern of having BOWS leaders serve for two years and then hand off to someone else. Bobbie Solomon took over as coordinator for BOWS after JJ, and when her two years were completed it came my turn. I tried handing off at the end of two years, but my relief needed to leave the sport. JJ returned to BOWS leadership, despite having been diagnosed with widely-spread cancer, and had several of us working in support but ultimately found that he was unable to keep with it. In the year that followed, we modified the structure, expanding things so that while one person might manage the administrative side of things, a group—primarily Chip Slack, Bob Cunningham, Phil Castaldi, and Yours Truly—works together on Thursdays, covering absences and providing a wider range of strengths, teaching styles, etc. I have been extremely proud of the work our BOWS swimmers do and it is an honour to be with them on their journey to the joys of open water swimming. I also appreciate how Xterra has stepped in to sponsor Thursday BOWS this year.

Craig: What are your favorite memories of JJ the instructor and JJ the person?

Ian: The pool time at the JCC had certainly helped the mechanics of my swimming, but the time I spent with JJ turned me into a swimmer, and a pretty good one, if I say it myself. The water temperature did not seem to matter to him; he was never in a wetsuit for BOWS. His style was calm and gentle, though he certainly taught assertive techniques for racing. I am not able to pin-point specific memories of that season beyond his advice about big fishies (those who know me will recognise my incapacity for recalling virtually anything), but the overall spirit JJ the Instructor provided was confidence in the water. I wish I had known him better as a person, but the gentleness and willingness to engage with anyone was infectious. In his closing years, he took up beekeeping and offered bottles of the best raw honey I have ever encountered. It inspired me to try peanut butter and honey sandwiches for very long rides, and I cursed loudly that I had not bought enough of it to carry me through the races at Madison. Beekeeping struck me as a perfectly natural thing for him to be involved with. When I first heard about his cancer diagnosis, I knew that, if I had heard correctly, we would be enjoying his company for a limited time. Even so, he asked about returning to BOWS to carry on his love for open water. The amount of effort it took him just to walk from the parking lot told us everything we needed to know about the steely determination that lay behind his smile and laughter. In my line of work, I see people who allow a diagnosis to define who and what they are. I think that JJ would have said ‘I have cancer, so I will bend it around me and live as I am, not as my diagnosis.’ He passed away on 2 February 2015, and I am eternally grateful for the graceful gift of open water swimming he gave me. Swim in peace, buddy.

Craig: You are also a triathlon referee. What is the process to become a referee?

Ian: To become a USAT official, you attend a training session the day before a race and then participate as a ‘Category 5’ official at that race the next day. These experiences teach basic triathlon rules and reporting procedures. Provided you get the basics down correctly, you are immediately upgraded to ‘Category 4,’ and volunteer to work during at least two additional races. Again presuming that your reporting practices, knowledge of the rules, and interpersonal communication skills fit the requirements, an official can advance to Category 3 and begins to receive compensation for officiating. There are Category 2 and 1 officials, though I have yet to sort out incentives to advance into these levels.

USAT had the youth/junior nationals at Liberty Station in 2010, and they needed local volunteers to help with officiating the races. I joined as a volunteer official that year, and again when the same event was held in Chula Vista in 2011. At the time, it was a way to do something to support the event, but then I realised that there is a facet of racing that I had not considered before. I began the USAT certification process with the first Orangeman Triathlon (Dana Point, 2011), and typically work two or three local races each year. In 2012, I volunteered to work the Oceanside race as bike course marshall, which has a somewhat more limited role than a USAT official. Since then, I have become part of the ‘San Diego Team’ of Ironman officials working races throughout the western US. I am looking forward to being part of the officials’ team at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in September. One of the great aspects of working as an official is the opportunity to see a wider variety of courses than we see just in San Diego. I have had the opportunity to preview some races, putting some on the ‘need to do’ list (e.g., Vineman) and scratching some off (e.g., IM Lake Tahoe).

Craig: Have you had any particularly challenging issues to deal with as a referee?

Ian: I am regularly astonished at the number of athletes who train to swim, bike, and run, but are totally clueless about how to race. There are athlete guides and pre-race meetings for a reason. I must confess they are usually guys in my age group, and predictably riding a specific bike frame, who just put their head down and go as fast as they can, cluelessly leaving a trail of destruction behind them. When they get penalised for doing something stupid, they invariably whine about how someone else made them do it, or they didn’t know it wasn’t allowed, or a one-minute penalty really makes them reconsider whether they ought to race any more. My advice is for them to get over themselves. This is not about working out parental issues or proving their value as a human being. This is a race. Races have rules to keep athletes safe and support a fair field of play. Know the rules. Follow the rules. You’ll have a great day.

Craig: You completed Ironman Wisconsin in 2015. What was that journey like for you?

Ian: For as much as triathlon is an individual sport (don’t get me started about draft legal events), Wisconsin really reinforced the value of mutual support along the way, and I count myself beyond fortunate to have found world-class support through TCSD.

Wisconsin was a longer journey than I had expected. I spent much of 2014 training for the race, and was graced with Brooke Skora as a training partner. We had some great times in training, as well as days when it just was not working, and were excited to get there. I got some debris in my goggles during the swim and ended up with a scratched cornea. My vision progressively worsened on the bike course to the point that it was unsafe for me to continue and I withdrew half way through. I was able to get out of the hospital soon enough to watch Tina Valle and Brooke finish and celebrate. I have a rather wide stubborn streak in me, and I figure that if I started something, I was going to finish, and so registered to return in 2015.

Training for a full distance race takes over your life, and if I am honest I did not prepare as well for 2015 as I did in 2014. Unable to rouse myself out of bed for those crack-of-dawn training sessions, I worked a full day, then spent my evenings working out. Saturdays were long ride days, and Sundays were long run days. There were gorgeous swims, bikes, and even runs, sometimes in the company of supportive TCSDers. As I entered my taper (a week and a half, as opposed to the three weeks in 2014), I was fully confident that the race was in the bag, as long as I avoided another injury, and the only question was the finish time. Liz Sibley, now my sweetheart, agreed to make the trip with me and was the best Sherpa ever.

Race day held spectacular racing conditions. I was one of the first people into the water and was where I wanted to be just as the sun rose over the hills and Aaron Copeland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ (one of my favourite pieces of music) boomed out over the lake. I turned to face the sun, closed my eyes, prayed, and just drank in the beauty of the moment. As the music ended, I heard another athlete call out to me, ‘dude! You are the calmest person here today!’ Madison is one of the few races left with a mass start, and at the gun, it’s nothing but knees and elbows for the first 500m. At the first turn, it’s a tradition for athletes to salute Wisconsin’s dairy heritage by mooooooo-ing. My swim of 1:16 was far slower than I had wanted (it should have been ten minutes faster), but I had not trained as well as I ought and it still fit well into the overall plan for the day. Coming out of the water is the first real indication of the level of spectator support and involvement that covers the race course. From the water’s edge, you run up a parking structure ramp (‘the helix’) which is lined by thousands of friends, family, and curious on-lookers. In 2014, I had a cycling jersey custom made in tribute to my regiment, The Gordon Highlanders, and in 2015 I put it on again, this time confident that it would see me all the way along the course.

The bike course is a bit like getting nibbled to death by ducks. It comprises a series of climbs (85 or so summits in 110 miles) that individually are undaunting, but in total will wear you down unless you are mindful about your riding; the hot shots who blow through IMAZ would die in Madison. All along the course, families turn out in front of their homes—often creating their own party with blasting music—to cheer you on. There is an infamous series of three long climbs which is as close to the Tour de France as I am ever going to experience. At the bottom was a group of four or five college student variously costumed as demons and devils. As I passed by, a young woman smacked me on the butt with her plastic pitch fork and called out, ‘welcome to hell!’ Further up the climb, thousands (if not tens of thousands) of spectators line the street, cheering, encouraging, and generally carousing. If that fails to motivate you, nothing will. There was a young woman who I kept going back and forth with on the course, and somewhere around mile 80 I saw her in the distance stopped on the roadside with a flat tire. As I approached, I asked if she was OK, and she said she did not know how to change her tire. I stopped and changed her tire while we talked for a bit about how the day was going. With that done, she took off, I took off, and I do not recall seeing her after that, but it was fun hearing someone else’s story. You will have guessed by now that I do not possess a laser-like focus on racing; it is the racing experience that really catches my attention. As I returned to the transition area, I was chuffed to have that portion of the race done with everything going exactly to schedule, and to see my Sherpa cheering like a crazy person.  (“chuffed” is another funny Ian word meaning “pleased”.)

The run is perhaps the most challenging part of any race for me, and Madison was doubly so. With my insufficient brick training, my legs were just not having the run portion. I adopted the motto ‘run when you can, walk when you must.’ Unfortunately, there was a lot of walking going on. Much to my delight, Brooke appeared in the crowd at about mile 7 and really picked up my spirits. She moved along the course at several points to find me, and get me through that troubled phase of the race. Madison is a two-lap course with the turn to the second lap only about 100m from the finish line; having to turn and head back out is perhaps one of the most mentally crushing experiences. Fortunately, Liz was there with a bright smile and loud cheers. I had to admit to her that the run was not going well, and that I would miss my aspiration of a less than 14-hour race. With her gentle reassurances, I made my way back out. (Little did I know that the smile was all about her plans to head directly to the Irish pub around the corner to settle down to a very well-deserved whiskey!)

Although I have watched an IM finish line countless times and heard Mike Reilly welcome racers in, it takes on a whole different meaning when it is for you. I developed a tunnel-vision where I knew there was music and people cheering, but these existed only in theory. Running down the chute, it was just me, that stretch of red carpeting, and the end of a road that had started in January 2014. As I crossed the finish line at about 15:45 and Mike declared me a Ferrous Individual, a close friend and fellow IM official, Ros Popham, stepped in front of the volunteers, put a finishers medal around my neck, and gave me a huge hug. Crossing the finish line was a thrilling experience, but I think that the people I encountered all along the way—Brooke to Liz to Ros and everyone in between—were far more motivating and meaningful.

Craig: What have been some of your most favourite destination races?

Ian: A few years ago, I spent Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) in Edinburgh with my son. I knew that he would be dead to the world New Year’s Day, and so, on a lark, I registered for a sprint race that morning: eight lengths of the pool used for the Commonwealth Games, three laps around Arthur’s Seat on the bike (a huge hill where if you’re not climbing or dropping like a rock, you’re on the quarter-mile stretch of flat ground with the North Sea wind blasting in your face), and finally one lap around Arthur’s Seat on the run (refer to my previous parenthetical explanation). It was 39 degrees at best, but the people were warm and friendly. It was a great time, and I highly recommend it to anyone. In California, I’ve come to enjoy the Vineman races in Sonoma. I have done all their distances except the full. The Monte Rio Olympic (early June) is a dynamite event. The river swim is a unique challenge, the cycling is gorgeous, and the run for the Olympic is mostly through redwood forest. For me, it’s a relaxing weekend of hiking, wine tasting, and oh-by-the-way a race. I live in hope of the Vineman half being resurrected.

Craig: What did it mean to you to be selected to be on the TCSD Ambassador Team?

Ian: Being part of the TCSD Ambassador Team in 2014 and 2015 was a great opportunity for me in a couple ways. First, I love this organisation. I know that some folks have complaints, some entirely accurate critiques and some just petty whining, but in the long view we are beyond fortunate. The ability to train, race, and socialise with people in TCSD is something that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Being a referee has shown me enough of tri clubs to know that, even at its worst, TCSD is well and truly the best tri club on the planet. Being able to represent the Club at events and races gave me the opportunity to give back in a small way. At the same time, it gave me the opportunity to understand the Club a bit better, to see how it works, who was involved in making it all happen.

Craig: Who has been the most influential person in your triathlon career?

Ian: It is difficult to identify a single person, because there has yet to be an encounter that has not influenced me somehow. JJ certainly turned me into a swimmer, which is a gift beyond comparison. Sandi Johnson, a former Club member, was an integral part of me getting back into racing and understanding the race of life and to her I am forever indebted. I realised how to be a partner, encouraging someone else’s development while also fulfilling my own goals. Brooke Skora laid down challenge after challenge and was there to meet them all. Liz’s tenacity despite Sacramento heat, family, work, and school daily inspires me to stop my own whining and get on with training. Beyond these ‘most influential’ people, I continue to rely on Steve Tally’s sense of humour and down to earth approach to racing. The Thursday BOWS crew and swimmers never cease to amaze and inspire me. Bob Babbitt’s exceptional knowledge and ability to talk with the very elite at TCSD meetings regularly astonishes me. Where do I stop?!

Craig: What do you do for a living?

Ian: I am currently a Supervising Hearing Officer the State of California’s Department of Social Services. We have a contract with the Social Security Administration to hear the appeals of individuals who have been notified that their federal disability benefits will be stopped. I have the best staff of administrative hearing officers in the State, which means they spend a lot of time making me look good. I enjoy the legal research I get to do in support of my staff, the teaching opportunities, and ensuring that, above all, we do the right thing.

Craig: Who has been the most influential person in your career?

Ian: There are lots of ways to view a ‘career.’ We’ve already talked about my racing ‘career.’ From a vocational perspective, there was a group of 17 Administrative Law Judges who apparently saw something in this kid who informally represented the State, and took me on as their project. They held my feet to the fire when necessary, and gently explained, taught, nudged me to the point that I can now do the same for my staff and bring out the best in them. More broadly speaking, my post-graduate advisor Andrew Mackillop was more than I might have hoped for. I had a very specific topic in mind. He handed me a short reading list and asked for a brief assessment. The readings made me realise how many assumptions I had made, and his response to the assessment (‘nice start…flesh it out to 5000 words and get back to me’) put me on notice that I was in for more than I bargained for. I am quite convinced that my PhD has nothing to do with intellectual power, but is merely an indication of unusual patience.

Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you change?

Ian: I think I would make it so that athletes had to learn to race while they train to swim, bike, and run. They willingly excuse patent errors by saying ‘I do it that way at all my races.’ If a coach said to fix some aspect of their running gait, they would do it. How is that different from letting them know that taking up 6-feet of rack space is wrong?

Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?

Ian: I have three triathlon goals just now. First, I want to continue to shave time off my races, showing at least incremental improvement. Second, I want to find a great destination race. The distance is not important, though Olympic is by far my favourite, but I’d like to go somewhere that has a challenging swim, a beautiful bike course, and an easy run. Finally, I want to complete a book that I’ve just started. It is intended to be down to earth recommendations for those who are new to triathlon. There are lots of books from a technical point of view, how to pick up speed on the bike, or whatever. This is designed to be more basic and practical, like ‘don’t get naked in transition.’

Craig: Ian, I waited way too long to interview you.  This was a lot of fun!  I really admire your perspectives.  Thank you for all you do for the TCSD and beyond.  We are lucky to have you on our team.

Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach.  Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or

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Glen Ellyn Freedom Four Mile Race

Craig and Mom

Craig and Kent Yohe

On July 4th I ran the Glen Ellyn Freedom Four Mile Race in my hometown of Glen Ellyn, IL.  I have had a lot of practice on this course as this was the 16th time I’ve done this race.  I gave it my best effort as I finished in 24:08.  My 2016 time was 23:00 so I’m thinking my blood donation from 8 days earlier played a role in my 2017 time.  I also heard the 2017 course was a bit longer.  Either that or the wheels are falling off!  I did manage to win the men’s 50-59 age group as I was 1st out of 70.  I was 17th out of 943 overall finishers.

I did get chicked 2x and I’m not ashamed of this at all.  Katelynne Hart cruised for 1st place female in 23:04 and Lindsey Payne was 2nd in 23:43.  Lindsey did the 2016 race in 22:28 so maybe everyone was slower in 2017?  I later learned Katelynne and Lindsay went 1-2 for my alma mater Glenbard West High School in the Illinois High School State Championships for 3200 meters.  And Katelynne also won state for 1600 meters.  Katelynne was a freshman and she did all that!  Katelynne’s mile personal best is 4:27.  Holy cow!

And speaking of fast women.  At the same time I was racing in Glen Ellyn, my wife Laurie was racing the Foot Traffic Flat Marathon in Portland, OR.  This was Laurie’s 242nd marathon finish.  Laurie had another of her great races as she won her age group to complete the sweep for our family.

The racing was great fun, but the highlight of the trip was hanging out with my Mom for 4 days.  Mom is 96 and doing well.  She had been hospitalized in February so we are extremely thankful that she has been back in her apartment since the end of April.  I am so lucky to have her in my life!  And I also was able to spend some great time with my sisters Cindy and Debbie and their families.  Running with those fast high school girls was fun, but I’m really glad the most important women in my life are past the high school years.

And there’s more – I was able to visit with my friends Paul Winans, Bruce McNair, Jim Brenner, Chuck Carey and Kent Yohe.  I’m the richest guy in the world to have such a loving family and great friends.  God has really blessed me…even if I can’t out run a couple of high school girls!

Living the life…

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TCSD Conversation: June 2017 – Dee Dee Burton

Jim, Dee Dee and Sante

TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent

Jim McCann was the TCSD President 10 years ago. Many, including me would say Jim built the TCSD. Jim passed away unexpectedly in June 2007 and to honor Jim and Dee Dee, they are the focus of this TCSD Conversation. If you knew them, then you will love this interview. If you didn’t know them, you will love getting to know them. Grab some Kleenex and enjoy.

Craig: How did you and Jim meet and ultimately end up in San Diego?

Dee Dee: The story of how Jim and I met is a pretty good one. It was 1998, and Jim had been studying wilderness medicine and wanted to find a challenging wilderness training program. I was living in Ohio, had been doing some solo backpacking and wanted to find a challenging wilderness survival program. So, June 1998 found us in the tiny town of Boulder, Utah having both signed up for a 10-day wilderness survival course with BOSS. I felt a powerful attraction to Jim from the moment I laid eyes on him. He had such a solid, calm demeanor with a shy smile and very soulful eyes.

At the end of those 10 days, I cancelled my return flight to Ohio and instead drove with him to San Diego, a place I still think of as Jim’s Town. Over the course of that drive, Jim told me so many stories about the club and the people in the club! His passion for sport and for people was so contagious! Barbara Javor, Bob Doyle, Bill Gibbs, Rita Reyes (now Williams), Osamu Chiba, Jonathan Toker, Henry Chan, GR – all of these characters (and many more) played such a big part in his life at that time and I couldn’t wait to meet them all!

After I finally did go back to Ohio we maintained our relationship, and I moved to San Diego in 2000 with my dog, Sante. She and Jim formed an immediate and intense bond. She never left his side. Sante didn’t recover from losing Jim, and she died a few months after him.

Craig: What was unique about being married to Jim?

Dee Dee: I’ll start with our wedding, because that was very unique. We wanted to get married where we met, so we contacted BOSS and they agreed to let us get married on their land, in the heart of Utah canyon country. The only hitch was BOSS didn’t want the local magistrate on their land, so the BOSS CEO, a very nice Jewish guy, went online to become a Christian marriage celebrant!

A few days before the special date, we learned that a group of Tibetan monks were in town, at the first stage of a US speaking tour. So, we were unbelievably blessed to have these monks participate in our wedding ceremony by performing their very unique deep throat chanting and bestowing special blessings on us. It was an absolutely magical experience!

Our very unique wedding set the bar pretty high for “uniqueness,” and so much of the rest of our married life met the bar! When Jim started we were living in his small condo in UTC. As the business grew, the wetsuits kept taking over all the space in the condo until eventually there were racks of wetsuits in every room and right down the hallway. I thought we would get brain damage from the overwhelming smell of rubber!

Later we moved to a tiny cottage about a block from the Cove. The cottage was so small that we erected a mountaineering grade tent in the back yard and used that as our bedroom! Our queen-sized bed and two bedside tables were there, and we each had a headlamp for reading in bed!

Another very unique thing about Jim, something that I’ve tried to keep in my life, was his follow-through — Jim followed through on absolutely everything. Every idea, every commitment, every next step — he followed through. One time he met a woman in the checkout line and got to talking with her about Burpee Seeds (he was a manufacturer’s rep for them at the time). When he learned that she ran a community garden, open to everyone, he sent her boxes of vegetable and wildflower seeds. He was constantly doing things like this; touching people’s lives for only a moment, yet forming a real connection and then following through in unique and thoughtful ways. It was as if Jim really understood that life can be cut short and he didn’t want to leave anything undone.

Another special thing about Jim was his love of his family. He was very close to his sisters, Patty and Linda, and he had six nieces and nephews. He went to incredible lengths to be involved in their young lives and to be a good role model to them about healthy and happy living. The best example is that he created a summer baseball camp for his two nephews, Ike and Willy. Every year, we flew them to San Diego for a couple weeks and Jim created a complete baseball camp experience for them, teaching them skills and drills. One year, Bill Gibbs got them all on the field at Qualcomm! By 2005 the baseball camp moved to Kingston WA and had expanded to include half the town!

A final thought is how he encouraged and coached people to be their very best self. I’ve been reading the stories submitted by so many club members, and I couldn’t do a better job of describing the impact he had on other people. Just read through all the stories and memories of Jim, and you’ll see the impact this unique quality had on others.

Craig: What do you think Jim would consider as his greatest accomplishments as TCSD President?

Dee Dee: Jim was proud of how the membership grew during his tenure. I think membership grew from around 350 in 2002 to about 1,200 in 2007. He was such a strong believer in the power of sport to transform lives, and he was constantly looking for new ways to improve the range of experiences the club could make available to people. Jim was adamant about only being around positive people and creating positive experiences. I think he would be proud of the hundreds of positive experiences he helped make happen. Oh, and the food! He would be proud of how well he used food to connect people with each other!

Craig: What are some of your favorite memories of being part of the TCSD community?

Dee Dee: When we were planning my move from Ohio to San Diego, Jim said, “You’re not going to be a spectator, Dee Dee. You’ve got to be a participant.” So, the tri club became a very important part of my life! I remember the first club race I did. It was at Glorietta Bay in Coronado. I finished in the middle of the pack (as always!) but ended up in an intense down-to-the-wire battle with Malin. I had never exerted myself so much and had never felt so exhilarated!

I remember the Midnight Century! I have no idea how Jim came up with the idea to start a century ride at midnight from Borrego Springs to Solana Beach, but we must have made six planning trips along the route, plotting every mile marker and identifying the best spots for break stations. I think 12 or 18 brave souls signed up for that event.

I remember when Jim came up with the idea for the desert training camps – oh my gosh, the planning that went into those events! It was never enough to just bring people together for a weekend of training and fun; it was always about what new experiences we could bring to bear, like the Hilltop Challenge.

I remember all the Friday night cove swims and then later all the Monday night Shores swims – always followed by food and socializing.

Craig: How was the TCSD helpful to you after Jim passed away?

Dee Dee: In the days after Jim died I was blown away by all the new stories about him people shared with me. So many stories I hadn’t heard; it was as if I was still getting to know him. And then, in the weeks and months that followed those first horrible days, I found incredible comfort in remembering and thinking about how many people Jim had touched through triathlon. Ultimately, it was too difficult for me to stay close to the club, but I have treasured those memories throughout the past ten years.

Craig: What is your life like today?  The universe works in strange ways. I’m sure I don’t deserve to have a second love of my life, and I’m grateful — every single day — to have met Pete. He’s an incredible person who has had a fascinating life and, as it did for Jim, the ocean plays an absolutely central part in Pete’s life. He’s a paddler (prone not stand-up), surfer, swimmer and professional sailor, and he has to be immersed in water on a daily basis to maintain his equilibrium. He’s got a huge cache of incredible stories about his experiences racing sailing yachts all over the world, and he can tell a story like nobody’s business!

In 2015 I got an opportunity to work in Australia, which is coincidentally Pete’s home country. We’ve been in Sydney for a little over two years and plan to stay one or two more. We live in the beach suburb of Freshwater in a little apartment that is right on the beach – we can hear the ocean waves all night. I still work in financial services, and every morning I take a ferry through the Sydney Harbour, right past the Sydney Opera House and disembark under the Sydney Harbour bridge. What an amazing commute – I pinch myself every day. I don’t bike or run any more, but I do still swim every week. There’s an incredible swim from the south end of Manly Beach into a little cove called Shelley Beach – the water is crystal clear and the fish abundant.

Back in 2000 when Jim said, “You’re not going to be a spectator, Dee Dee. You’ve got to be a participant,” he meant that both for triathlon and for life. It’s one of the many things for which I’m so grateful when I think about Jim’s influence on my life and, I think this is an apt way to sum up his legacy.

Craig – I asked our members this question – What are your fondest memories of Jim? Here are their responses.

Bob Babbitt – The year was 2007 and we were at La Jolla Shores for an Aquathlon, one of the awesome series of social events that Jim McCann added to the Tri Club of San Diego’s schedule during his time at the helm of the world’s best Tri Club. One of the reasons the club has been so successful over the years has been the spirit of the inclusion that Jim made such a huge part of the TCSD culture. It wasn’t about being an elitist, it was about being welcoming. Jim’s mantra was simple: come join us and let’s participate in and celebrate the world’s best sport…..together.

While we were standing there that evening, a person brand new to our sport emerged from the changing rooms in a wetsuit that Jim had just loaned him so he could join us for the swim/run event that evening.

One problem. This young man had the wetsuit on inside out. Now, if this was a different triathlon club, or if Jim wasn’t this very special man who gave so much to each and every one of us, he and the others around him might have drawn attention to the mistake and poked fun at the guy who couldn’t tell the outside of a wetsuit from the inside.

Instead, Jim casually strolled towards him, put his arm around his shoulder and quietly suggested that there might be a different way to put this particular wetsuit on.

That small moment is something that I see in my mind’s eye every time I think of Jim McCann, a man who gave so much to so many, a man who helped to build a loving and caring triathlon village here in San Diego and a man who left us way too soon.

Sergio Borges – I always remember Jim smiling, playful and well loved by many. It was always fun to hang out with him. He always found a way to bring peace to all and deal with problems with an ease. Great guy, Will never forget!

Wendy Harp – Jim is the reason I joined TCSD.  When I did my first triathlon in 2000, I was ‘ready’ to join TCSD.  I was really intimidated by the club, but Jim had a warmth about him that made me feel as ease.  Not only did I join the club, but he talked me into becoming the New Members Coordinator.  With just his smile and presence, he made me feel welcomed and a part of a great TCSD family.

Barefoot Henry Chan – We joined TCSD about the same time back in 1988 (maybe ’89). We were both new to triathlons, so the club was our life for years. My most memorable event was on a Friday evening cove swim. We were the only ones that showed up, and the surf was up. We went out, and I got pushed up near the cliffs, and a lifeguard had to reorient me towards the way out. Jim and I regrouped past the breaks, and we decided to just swim to the Shores and walk back, barefoot.

Nice that Road Runner Sports in Kearny Mesa has a permanent marker honoring Jim.

Richard Duquette – Jim was well respected by the TCSD membership because he empowered people. He would support those willing to contribute. I remember him saying, if the membership wants something (within reason), give it to them. Then,Jim would follow through. He had integrity and was easy to approach. With the nay sayers, he would “appoint” them to lead the project they questioned, this thereby called out those genuinely interested in contributing. This had the effect of creating an inclusive team of membership and sponsors all pulling in the same direction. I do miss him and his lovely wife Dee Dee, who would attend club camp outs. I thank Jim for giving me a lifetime TCSD membership, as we had a great working relationship.

Drew Peterson – I remember the feeling of Jim McCann.  You felt a certain way around him – welcomed and liked and valued.  You felt like you had known him and were long time friends.  I remember after my bike crash on Torrey Pines he went to the hospital and talked with my parents for a long time and supported them.  We have never forgotten this act of friendship to this day.  Jim was so encouraging and you felt a sense of happiness and inspiration around him.  He was happy doing what he did and was such a cool person.  In my mind he was the perfect leader and would have been the best president of anything he set his mind too.  Confident, friendly, inclusive and a sense of deep peace and strength.  Something so rare today.  Strangely my late dachshund Pumkin shared many of the same traits.  Ah right now I just thought of his dog Sante I believe.  OK shortly after he passed I was riding up on Laguna and saw someone who looked exactly like him.  I turned my head and looked back at him and waved and he smiled at me.  I will never forget Jim and he will be in my heart always.  I have always held him in my mind as the perfect leader.

Chris Costales – In five words, gentle voice and infectious smile.

But my fondest memory was at the west coast Xterra championships in Temecula where we talked about all the triathlon specific gadgets we could add to my 2001 Xterra.  “Right here we could add a water bottle that is heated by the sun. Attach a hose and bam, you have an outdoor shower. What about a pull out ramp so your dog can easily get into the back, like a moving truck?”  He had about 20 ideas and we chatted for at least an hour. Great guy.

Barbara Javor – Before Jim was TCSD president, he was the race director full of ideas how to make races different from plain vanilla triathlons. I served as his assistant. When we raced at Glorietta Bay in Coronado, sometimes he tossed tennis balls into the water marked with numbers that represented time bonuses for the competitors. The catch was if you grabbed any of the balls, you had to carry them on the bike and run as well to get the bonus. At one of the races he put everyone’s running shoes in a pile, which benefited the slower competitors. At our Miramar Lake races, we rented row boats instead of swam, and rollerblading could substitute for running. Sometimes we had mystery events included, like grabbing a plant bulb from a box and running up a hillside to plant it at the top. One time each competitor had to figure out a charade before crossing the finish line.

Before Jim took over as race director, there wasn’t much of a post-race feast beyond bagels, muffins, and Gatorade. Jim started bringing a camp stove and he cooked pancakes. From there, the post-race feast grew and served as the best way for club members to get to know each other both after races and before our monthly meetings. Before that, when people finished their races they would pack up and leave with participants still on the race course. That wasn’t very inspiring for slow athletes like me. Jim instituted the fourth event, eating, to make the club events more social.

David Lang – His unsurpassed friendliness!  He never “met a stranger” and made everyone feel welcome.

Lianne Chu – I have such fond memories of Jim and I agree with you that he truly built TCSD. When I first started TCSD years ago I remember that one of my first activities was the track workouts at UC high. I didn’t know anyone and the practice was a series of 4×400 relays (2 members per team and we would each run twice). Jim came up to me (probably noticing that I was a little clueless and alone) to be my partner. I had no idea that he was the president of the club. He made me feel so welcome and introduced me to everyone around us. At future TCSD events he continued to remember my name and was always so good about introducing everyone around him making TCSD feel like such a warm family.

At the TCSD camping trips Jim would put together the “hilltop challenge”. My kids were so young at the time- they are now 16 and 18 and to this day they still fondly remember him and this event.  Jim would have us run up the steep mountain behind the campsite, collecting bags of random goodies…he would have prize bags stuffed with goofy hats and party supplies. No joke, we still have some of the hats from those events.

Jim also supported a family friendly environment of TCSD by supplying us with huge bags of rubber duckies and prizes for a monthly kids event at the aquathlons – we called this the aquackathon and it introduced the next generation to the enjoyment of being active.

About a month before Jim passed away, he and Dee Dee had a fabulous party at their house welcoming a huge group of TCSD members. It was the last time I saw him. What a fabulous and influential person Jim was to myself and my family. We all miss him and think of him with such beautiful memories.

Darrell Steele – Jim had an unassuming way with people that was disarming, while also being a master at painting a vision for how they could get involved in the Tri Club.  I experienced this first hand and it changed my life.  I was eating lunch after a Saturday ride with Jim, Dee Dee his wife and another friend.  Bobby, the ride leader, had just accepted a position in LA and announced he was moving.  As we ate, I causally asked Jim what he was going to do about the ride. He responded, “What are you talking about?”  I then replied, asking “Who was going to lead the ride now that Bobby was leaving?”  Jim simply smiled and said, “You.” I laughed at the joke until I realized he was still just smiling.  I then protested, saying that I hadn’t been riding with the group long enough, that I wasn’t qualified, that I couldn’t commit and any other excuse I could think of.  He continued smiling and assured me that it would be great and I would be fine.   After I exhausted my excuses, I finally relented and agreed with a great deal of reluctance and several stipulations. That was more than 11 years ago, and those years have been more remarkable then I could have ever imagined.  His belief in me and faith that I would grow into being the ride leader, have been a blessing to me.  Having the opportunity to be involved with the TCSD Saturday Del Mar Ride has enriched my life in incalculable ways.  I’ve had the privilege of meeting remarkable people from around the world.  I’ve gotten to know and grown close to many whom I call very dear friends and met one who has become my best friend, Laura my wife.

Jonathan Toker – This is both an easy answer, because there are many fond memories of Jim, and a tough one, because it’s painful to remember him and difficult to chose any particular memory or small subset of memories of my friendship with Jim.

The odd thing is that it doesn’t feel like 10 years since Jim passed away. It feels almost like yesterday, and my memories of time in San Diego with the tri club feel both fleeting and enduringly indelible.

Jim was a paternal figure, but in the best of ways as a friendship of equals.

One of my fondest memories of Jim is at any number of summer Friday evening cove swims and potlucks. I have a lump in my throat as I think about all the times he seemingly effortlessly got everything and everybody organized. He was a master orchestral leader. And his masterpiece was a coming together of strangers and friends with food, standing around with a soggy plate or two of the most delicious food. Often based more on circumstance than on haute-cuisine. Jim was so welcoming, without judgement or examination. It was as if Jim had an unMcCanny (sorry!) ability to just see the best in people.

Again, at the Glorietta Bay club races or annual Pine Valley Duathlon, and Jim somehow managed to help direct the race, host the post-race spread, and keep everybody happy.

I give Jim credit for helping give me the courage to live life and take chances, in particular as I started up my own company, and his passing was one reason I was able to get up enough courage to pursue my dreams and leave my job to pursue my dream – in October 2007, just a few months after his passing.

In the absence of somebody loved, one finds solace and strength based on their memory. I still miss Jim today, though I know he would be (quietly) proud of himself and how he positively affected those who were fortunate to call him a friend. I miss Jim.

Judy Seid – Jim McCann built the TCSD into what it is today due to his spirit of inclusiveness, encouragement and his true inner fun loving nature. The club had previously been viewed as a club for “elites” thus kept away many who may have been intimidated to enter the world of triathlon. Instead, Jim transformed the club into a home for anyone and everyone to have support and training so they too could push their own limits without fear of intimidation. Jim started the real beginner Sunday bike rides. Jim started the open water swim training at Glorietta Bay where people could get comfortable in the bay environment. Jim started the Borrego Winter training camps, really just a super fun campout with a 60 mile bike ride on Saturday and the Hill Challenge on Sunday morning before breakfast. Jim had the tennis ball races at Glorietta Bay where we would collect time deduction tennis balls in our swimsuits and carry them back with us. Jim rented a house in La Jolla Village and slept in a tent in the backyard. Jim chose Dee Dee as his wife. Dee Dee shared Jim with all of us!  There were prizes, always prizes. There was always food, lots of it. Jim started the Aquathlon and brought tables of food for afterwards…the club grew! Jim encouraged others publicly and privately. If you weren’t volunteering in the club, Jim would get you to start doing something. Outside the club, Jim, who played college baseball, encouraged my daughter to start a softball training camp after she graduated college. He taught her how to start a course online and then purchased and had 2 boxes of regulation softballs shipped to her to start her off. We were shocked at his generosity! Jim didn’t need recognition, he did things quietly. Jim regularly practiced random acts of kindness. My daughter’s second job now is coaching a High School softball team in her home in Massachusetts. She is 32. She will always remember him and is a better person because of him. Jim’s legacy is living on every day. Thank you Jim for everything you gave us!

Bill Gibbs – I have countless fond memories of Jim. He was welcoming to anyone and everyone. His casual style of leadership was perfect for the club. He took ownership of the club so it was like family to him. The way he “delegated” is something that most people will probably remember. I was a victim of his delegation when he asked me to be vice-president of the club. I enjoyed volunteering for the club but becoming vice-president was the last thing on my mind. The next thing I knew I was VP. It was hard to say no to Jim. Jim helped give me the courage and confidence to take on other challenges in life and I will always be thankful to him for that. Jim worked hard to organize club races, club meetings, social activities, and countless other events and somehow he made it look easy because he enjoyed it so much. I agree that Jim built the club. If I’m not mistaken, membership grew from a few hundred to two thousand under his leadership.

Claudia Flynn – Jim McCann was a wonderful person and a great ambassador of triathlons. He really motivated and helped many of us with the open water swim at La Jolla Shores. He wanted us to have the best experience in the water and excel at it. He helped us overcome the fear of open water swim with his passion about the ocean and his love of dolphins. He took care of us and planted the seed to love triathlons and make it a lifestyle. Not only was he a great president, but he organized the aquathlons and beginner races and made TCSD a stronger club with a remarkable increase in the number of new members. His smile and positivism was contagious and undeniable. After our last swim with him, there were so many dolphins that night surfing and playing in the water. I will never forget after Jim passing, Dee Dee said that “it was like the dolphins were saying bye to Jim”. He definitely made an impression on everyone that had the privilege of meeting him and he will never be forgotten. I’m forever thankful.

Matt Sparks – I was having some sink or swim moments round about the time I met Jim. He was one of the people who helped me swim.  He was my first client and it was his enthusiasm that caused me to create what turned into the Corporation, MHS-Works, Inc.  Originally called Trustworthy Handywork and Custom Projects or THCP, it soon outgrew its humble beginnings  and became a Licensed construction company. Dee Dee also hired us several times. And it was Dee Dee, who took me out in my first ever open water swim at LJ Shores.

Elaine Bergeron – I remember Jim being very inclusive and always connecting people.  He even introduced a few people that later went on to get married. The first time I went to a swim, I was nervous as I didn’t know anyone.  Jim told a few people who I was and where I worked to spark conversation. He had such an ease and natural way of approaching people.  From that point on, I felt like I belonged as part of TCSD.  The first time I saw Jim on a Saturday TCSD ride, I was surprised to see him on a mountain bike.  I learned that he did this so that he could stay with the folks in the back.  Thank you Jim for the way you touched our hearts, and showing us how to live.

Jimena Florit (Dolzadelli) – Jim was one of a kind. He always found a new and extraordinary way of doing ordinary things.  That put him in an exclusive club, that’s for sure. He loved people, he loved sports, but what he loved most was helping people to be happy at doing sports. He dedicated his life to the TCSD and the Aquathlons at the Shores. Jim coached kids baseball and answered any questions anyone might have pretty much about anything.

Genuine from the heart, he cared. And you knew it! Jim had a clear vision of where he was going, and lead the Tri Club for many years, growing the number of Tri enthusiasts even if you didn’t own a bike! And if there was a Friday night swim at the cove, with a potluck after, you knew you better step up your game with his NO CHiPS and SALSA policy. He had 2 loves to share his free time: his beloved wife Dee Dee and his sweet companion dog Sante. If you knew Jim, you knew Sante! Slow moving dog, sweet like him. People like Jim seem to often pop up in the memory at random but meaningful times.  He was one of a kind who will be missed forever.

Denise Bienias – My fondest memories of Jim McCann was his very calm, yet strong commitment towards triathlon and all it encompassed.  Jim was always the quiet guy off to the side at the TCSD Coronado club races, as they were getting bigger and bigger, fielding any questions and giving sound advice to any TCSD newbie that asked or appeared to need it.  I remember always the smorgasbord of goodies, including the muffins, after all the club races.  He just quietly went about his business of running the club and going thru his own training.  He loved the sport and it was evident from all his long hours and hard work he dedicated as President of the Tri Club.  We were so fortunate to have been a part of Jim’s legacy and always remember him fondly.

Bob Rosen – The year was 2001. Penticton, British Columbia, Ironman Canada, I was up there with Bill Gibbs who served as Club VP for the same time Jim was Prez, About 7 years. As anyone who’s ever done an IM knows, the evening before is pretty much on a schedule. Dinner at 5 PM, set out all your gear. Settle in early, which we did. Try to deal with the nerves. So the night before the race, at about 7:30 PM, the phone rings, it’s Jim. He asks if we’d like to join him for a picnic dinner at Okanagan Lake Beach. We were downright befuddled by Jim’s call. “It’s the night before an Ironman and you haven’t eaten yet? Is your gear ready?” “Nah” Jim says, I thought it’d be fun to hang at the beach with you guys. I can pack my gear afterwards.”

It was just another day in the life. Jim’s life. Living in the moment.

Steve Tally – I had the great pleasure to get to know Jim during my first few years in the club. In addition to his unassuming and gentle disposition that put everyone at ease, I have a few specific memories of Jim that stand out.

One memory doesn’t sound like much but is very typical of Jim and his way. At one of my first Aquathlons, I had just come around the pylon to head back for the second loop of the run and Jim was there. He said “Go Steve Tally!” which made me feel like a million bucks as I was a newer member and the President knew my name!  Then I heard him calling out names of all those behind me as well, and this continued until I was out of earshot. I realized he took the trouble to learn names of as many members as he could. I could see the confidence it gave people at the turnaround.  When I came in for the finish he was still at it standing there cheering each member on by name (we were admittedly a much smaller club then!).

The way the Tri 101 started was also very typical of Jim.  I had helped answer some of the beginner questions before a club meeting and mentioned to him that most beginners had the same questions and that we should have a monthly meeting to answer them.  Those that knew him could guess his response: “OK, go ahead and get that setup and let me know what you need.” You had to watch what you said around Jim!

It was an honor to know you Jim!

Osamu Chiba – It’s not easy for me to pick one particular day or event as my fondest memory of Jim McCann.  Instead, I would say the overall closeness to him like family = my fondest memory.

Around 1999 ~ 2001 I would show up at Jim’s place every Saturday or Sunday afternoon.  If he was there, I stayed for a couple of hours and talked about all kinds of topics, such as about triathlon, camping, his business, etc.

And we would call each other if necessary, like taking care of his pets while he was out of town.

I sure miss those years…

Thomas Johnson (TCSD President 2009 to 2012) – I have many great memories of Jim. Here are a few that stand out for me.

I met Jim at La Jolla Cove on a Friday evening in the summer of 1998 looking out over the Cove. Jim was very outgoing and had a calm sense about him that was very welcoming. We both had a love of ocean swimming.  Jim offered me a cheeseburger from the potluck after my swim.  I asked him what group this was and I had my first introduction to the Greatest Club on the Planet! The Triathlon Club of San Diego. It was four more years and a few more free cheeseburgers before I joined the club. My first volunteer position with the club you ask? Potluck Captain! Very clever. I didn’t even see it coming.

After a Monday evening La Jolla Shores swims in late summer 2002 Jim & Dee Dee invited me out for dinner to Su Casa over by Wind ‘n Sea. They shared their story of how they met on an adventure challenge in MOAB and fell in love. I realized right then that I met two very special people and was grateful for their friendship and their love of trying to connect people in the club they thought would be a good match. I didn’t find my true love that year personally but I bet we have a marriage or two today thanks to those behind the scene efforts by the McCann’s.

Back in Spring of 2005 Jimmy told me about this great idea he had for a new Tri Club event…. The Aquathlon which has grown into one of the most popular TCSD events and really embodies what Jim’s mission was in connecting people, exercising and enjoy some food and a cold drink with friends and family at the beach with a killer sunset.  I recall asking Jim what his goal was for participation for the Aquathlon’s … can you guess? 25 participants was the goal.  Jim would be so stoked to know we have to cap attendance now.

Finally I will always remember the FREE seeds for plants, veggies and flowers Jim would give away at every Club Meeting. I didn’t know Jim had “another job” outside of the club. Home Depot Rep.

John Montanile – I think my fondest memories of Jim were how generous he was with his time and knowledge. We did the beginner coaching together and he was so encouraging of anyone who wanted to try triathlon. A very positive encouraging influence on the beginners and me!  1997-99 I think.

Raja Lahti-McMahon – Jim was the man who bound us all together.

I had no idea what it was like running a “club,” but felt his warmth with TCSD and became part of the family. He passed shortly thereafter. The club he left behind was one of the most empowering, friendly, wonderful groups of people I have ever met. I immediately volunteered to help run the sponsorship part of the club after he passed and learned so much along the way.

My memory of Jim is one of complete friendship, no matter who you were… and for the love of the sport. Swim, Bike, Run, Fun. Whatever it needed to get there is what Jim did… and we will.

We all miss you Jim.

Bob Doyle (TCSD President 1995 to 1997) – Sadness but many smiles is best way to summarize life without Jim.  There have been many times and situations where I would have wanted to have Jim there or be able to pick up the phone to get Jim’s always unique perspective (whether it was serious or funny).  He and I would talk about all things – news, politics, sports, and certainly the Tri Club and the world of triathlons. Every time these conversations always put a smile on my face.   Jim was a great observer of people and situations.  And Jim had a heart of gold. Jim was always there to help others whether it be people or animals.  Jim got great joy from seeing others do well.  Maybe it was doing a baseball camp for his nephew and friends, helping someone find a job or their career path, or thinking of ways to make the Tri Club, or someone in the club, better, Jim was always a positive force/motivator for so many people.

Thinking about past times with Jim or future times without – I think of what Jim did or would have done or said – I smile.  Of course, I am sad at times that I and many (including my children who never got to meet Jim) can’t be experiencing more of Jim’s unique perspectives and humor.   However, I remain thankful for the time with Jim and the many smiles he continues to generate for me and to those who knew him.

Brian Long (TCSD President 2007 to 2009) – In many ways Jim is still a big part of my life. He was very important to me as a model of service to others and the impact one person could have on another. His actions cultivated my desire to help others into a passion to help build an amazing community we call the Triathlon Club of San Diego. I had an amazing time walking with a Buddha and will be forever impacted and grateful.

Rita Reyes-Williamson (TCSD President 1998) – When I joined TCSD back in the mid 1990’s, I had never done a triathlon.  I recall going to a couple of meetings and everyone was so welcoming and encouraging.  They didn’t care that I was new to the sport.  Jim, in particular, was “Mr. Welcome Wagon” although Gurujan was right there competing for that title!  Jim suggested that I join them at the Tuesday track workouts, Friday night swims and the Saturday group rides, which I did and EVERY time I showed up Jim made a point of coming up to me and bringing me in the fold.  And he did this for EVERY new person who came out.  Through the years, Jim was the positive voice in my ear (literally) when I was sucking wind at track, suffering in my granny gears up Scripps Poway Parkway and my faithful draftee at La Jolla Cove – because I could actually swim pretty fast!  To me Jim was and is TCSD.  He was the heart of our Club and set high standards for those of us who remain to build the most amazing Tri Club in his honor.

Jim Vance – I remember Jim was always giving of himself. I was just an up and coming pro, and he pulled me aside and had a lot of great ideas to help me see the bigger picture. He transformed the Triathlon Club of San Diego, into a program that had so many events, he really knew what was needed to grow the sport and develop a true community. He always saw the bigger picture. We are still enjoying the benefits of many of the things he implemented, and developed. It helped me become the triathlete I was, and the coach I am today.

I remember the day I heard he died. I was preparing to compete at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, and I got the news. I had to sit down, and shed some tears. Suddenly, he had taught me the bigger picture again, that what we have in the sport is special, even in ways we don’t know. I miss him still.

Tom Piszkin (TCSD President 1987 to 1988) – Jim joined the club in 1988, during my second term as president. He often engaged me with new angles for the club’s operations.

Always inquisitive and creative never pushy, I could see the wheels turning as he pondered new approaches to how we were serving our then 300 members. Over the next 10 years of his informal “internship” he gradually acquired all of the knowledge and skills that led to the most exponential growth in the club’s 33 year history. He had the perfect personality to foster a decentralized structure. Jim was Tom Sawyer charging his friends for the privilege of painting his fence. His integrity and enthusiasm will always be encoded in the club’s DNA.

Jessica Gehl – I first met Jim at a La Jolla Cove Friday Night Swim of Labor Day Weekend, 2000. He approached me after the swim and invited me to a group dinner. I hesitated since I didn’t know anyone, but he gently pushed me into it. He worked hard to make me feel welcome. During dinner, Dee Dee invited me on a 60 mile ‘chic’ ride the next day, which I also joined. It turned out to be an awesome first weekend in San Diego for this Midwest transplant. That was the beginning of my friendship with Jim and Dee Dee.

He would always try to figure out how to get more people involved in triathlon. Once I asked him why he cared so much about growing the sport. He had three reasons, people’s health, purpose for people to come together, that it got people outdoors in the natural environment. He believed that if people were enjoying nature that they would fight to keep it as it should be.

Jim had thoughtful intention in every action and word he spoke, although we usually didn’t realize it. He was always working to improve everything around him. He is still missed today and forever.

Craig Zelent – Jim’s last name could have been Idea Man. He was always coming up with great new ideas. In 1999 Jim suggested that I create the new TCSD position of Ironman Coach. I had never been a coach before, but I decided to go for it. 18 years later, I have no regrets. I am so fortunate to have served as the club’s Ironman Coach for 15 of those years. I have met a lot of great people in the process and hopefully was able to help them achieve their dream.

My favorite memory of Jim that illustrates the size of his heart was his Adopt a Dog program. Jim gave some time at the club meetings for a representative of the San Diego Humane Society to bring up a dog seeking a new home. I am sure quite a few dogs found their new homes because of Jim.

Thank you Dee Dee for sharing Jim and sharing your story. We miss you in San Diego, but we are all so happy you have found Pete. You deserve the best!

Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach.  Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or

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Ironman 70.3 Coeur d’Alene

John & Cheryl Montanile and Craig

Laura and Mark Cole and Craig

Men’s 55-59 Age Group Podium. Craig was 4th place.

On June 25th I raced the Ironman 70.3 Coeur d’Alene (CDA) in Idaho.  I registered for this race 8 months ago thinking I would need it to qualify for the IM 70.3 World Championships, but with a lot of luck I managed to get my qualifying spot at the Oceanside 70.3 in April.  So CDA was just for fun and pride.

The highlight of this trip was seeing some old friends.  The first athlete to pay me for my coaching services was John Montanile back in 2007.  John relocated from San Diego to Pennsylvania a few years ago.  Earlier this year John and his wife Cheryl retired, purchased a trailer which has become their home, and have been traveling the country.  They happened to be in the area so we had a great dinner my first evening in CDA.

And my friend Laura Cole whom I met at Ironman Japan in 1995 was also racing in CDA.  Laura and her husband Mark live in Florida so I have had very few opportunities to see her over the years, but we are good friends so we have stayed in touch.  I think this was just the 4th time in 22 years that we have raced together – Japan, Nationals in Orange County, Wildflower and now CDA.  Laura, Mark and I shared a wonderful lunch the day before our race.  One of my primary wishes for CDA was to see Laura qualify for the 70.3 Worlds.  I am pleased to say Laura did qualify so we will race for the 5th time in Chattanooga in September.

The weather was warm in CDA.  Race day warmed to the high 80’s before my race ended.  I don’t believe I ever saw a cloud in the sky during my entire visit.  It was gorgeous!  Lake Coeur d’Alene was 62 degrees – very comfortable with very little chop.  The organizers had us do a rolling start which means you seed yourself and start when you are ready.  The professionals started at 6am and the age groupers started at 6:15am.  I started with the group targeting a 30-35 minute swim.  I did the 1.2 mile swim in 31:43.  I knew the heat would be a factor so I kept a steady, easy pace.  I was pleasantly surprised to come out of the water with such a fast time.  This put me in 4th place.

I had raced the full Ironman in CDA back in 2007 and 2009, but they changed the bike course from those years.  The course now is a bit hillier than I remembered.  Most of the hills were dedicated climbs for 5-10 minutes each.  Despite that, I found the bike course to be pretty fast.  My 56 mile bike split of 2:50:41 at CDA was 5 minutes faster than at Oceanside.  I had the 14th fastest bike split and that dropped me into 9th place.

The 13.1 mile run was comprised of 2 laps.  With the race starting so early I was running before 10am.  It was warm, but not super hot, yet.  Parts of the run course were in the shade.  During lap 1 I was between the 1st and 2nd place female professionals who were on their 2nd lap.  This worked in my favor because I was able to pace off them and it was fun to see how their race played out.  By the time I got to the 7 mile mark I was really hot, though, so I started putting ice in my hat at the aid stations.  I held on and finished strong with a 1:32:37 split, the fastest run of the day.  My finish time was 5:00:29.  I tried so hard to break 5 hours, but just could not do it.  I finished 4th out of 74 men in the 55-59 age group so I got on the podium which goes 5 deep at the Ironman events.  I finished 167th out of 1,627 overall finishers.

To see my race photos, click on this link:

Living the life…

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TCSD Conversation: May 2017 – Steve Sutherland

2012 USA Triathlon Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony – from left to right – Judge Jones, Dave Scott, Scott Molina, Mark Allen, Chuck Graziano, Kat Donatello, Steve Sutherland, Scott Tinley.

TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent

I recently talked triathlon with long time TCSD member and USA Triathlon Age Group Committee Chairman Steve Sutherland.  Steve gives a ton of his time to our sport and he is absolutely someone you should know, despite occasionally wearing his bike helmet backwards.  I know you will enjoy reading Steve’s story and getting to know this great guy.

Craig: What sports did you do while growing up?

Steve: I was born near Ventura, and grew up as the oldest child in a large family. My Dad was an officer in the US Navy so we moved around every couple of years, mostly in California and Hawaii although we did spend a few years in Washington DC, Maryland and Rhode Island. When I was an infant we lived in Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach and Mom took me to the beach from the very start. My mother always encouraged us to go outside and play, I think in part because raising five active kids with Dad away constantly at sea or on assignment was a real challenge. Organized sports became an important part of our lives. My brothers, my sister and I all played baseball, basketball, track and field sports, and because we always lived by the ocean, swimming and surfing became a big part of my life. As a family we also hiked, camped, fished and were always encouraged to try out new things. We all grew up associating active outdoor sports as a very natural thing. And as we got a little older, our bicycles became a staple form of transportation. I was also fortunate that my parents strongly believed in teaching children to swim at an early age; my first swimming lessons happened around the same time that I learned to walk. I competed in surfing contests, got on the podium a couple of times and even toyed with the idea of trying to make the pro tour, but I knew deep down inside that I wasn’t nearly that good. My involvement in sports and sports competition has continued in one form or another continuously since then.

Craig: What was your first triathlon experience like?

Steve: For many years, my friends told me to try out triathlon. One of the first times I recall being encouraged to sign up for a race was around 1980. I rode my bike to The Plunge for a swim, and someone I knew suggested that since I biked and swam a lot, and competed in other sports, that I might want to sign up for triathlons. The idea sounded a little farfetched at the time, and it wasn’t until 2002 that I decided to put the time and energy into training and competing in a local race. My training was based on an eight-week plan on paper that I bought from Mrs. T’s. Even with good prep I was still quite naïve about racing but there I was at the Mission Bay Sprint in the fall, giving it my best shot. When I stood up at the end of the swim I felt dizzy and almost fell over. I took forever in transition getting out onto the bike course, and when I was about halfway around Fiesta Island I started laughing like crazy, with the sudden thought that “Holy cow, I’m really doing this!”  For the transition to the run, I was again slow, carefully pulling on calf length basketball socks and Nike basketball shoes before doing a slow shuffle out to the run course. When I finally crossed the finish line I knew I was hooked.

Craig: When did you join the TCSD and what has your membership meant to you?

Steve: At that first race I met Jim McCann, and he strongly encouraged me to come to the next TCSD meeting. I met a lot of very enthusiastic and supportive people at that meeting, and I knew that this was a resource that I absolutely needed if I was going to get better at triathlons. I think the club only had about 300 active members then but they were all very involved and their enthusiasm was contagious. It was an easy choice to decide to join the club. I have been a regular attendee since 2003, and I credit our club and our terrific members with a big part of my evolution as a multi-sport athlete. The free workouts, the club races, and the overall supportive nature of our membership are priceless. And I’ve made many friends through the club, including Bill Dusting, Tony Berg, Gary Sowell, Charlie Szentisi, Mike Plumb and many more.

Craig: You have been very involved in USA Triathlon over the years.  When did that relationship begin and what have been some of your highlights?

Steve: I joined USAT in 2003 after reading a short article about the Age Group Committee (AGC) in Transition Times, the precursor to the current USAT magazine. Chuck Graziano was seeking volunteers, I reached out to him and told him that I was still a newbie at the sport but I wanted to help if I could. My background in my professional life was a good fit for the type of committee work and support that Chuck needed. Almost immediately I was tapped to help create the USAT Hall of Fame. We are all very proud of that accomplishment. We selected our first class of inductees in 2008, and we now have over 40 individuals in the Hall of Fame including a number of TCSD members such as Bob Babbitt, Jim Curl, Paula Newby-Frazier, Scott Tinley and the late Jim McClaren. Chuck and I also helped create the Athlete of the Year Banquet (with a lot of help from Kat Donatello), and I spent a lot of energy streamlining and improving the selection process for our Athletes of the Year (AOY’s). Our next project was getting USAT lifestyle awards defined and awarded, which we called the Multisports Awards (Lifetime Achievement, Volunteer of the Year, Comeback of the Year, etc.) I took over leadership of the Age Group Committee three years ago, and we continue to work on issues that directly impact our membership. In addition to the projects I mentioned above, the AGC is responsible for coordinating and moderating the Annual Town Hall Meeting held at the National Age Group Championships, administering a grant program for education in rules and safety, assisting with the administration of the National Rankings process and assisting in the Hall of Fame selection and induction process. We’ve tackled Clydesdale/Athena issues, initiatives to increase the number of race officials, and concerns brought to us by age group members. I write the annual committee report that we submit to USAT. None of these successes would have happened without the full support we receive from Rob Urbach, Tim Yount, the USAT staff and the USAT Board of Directors.

Craig: I suspect a lot of thought went into creating the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.  What went into making sure our Hall of Fame fit our sport?

Steve: Chuck Graziano was very passionate about that project. There were three of us (Chuck, Michael “Judge” Jones and I) who were the primary drivers of the effort, but of course many other people also contributed. One of the first moves I made was to call 19 other halls of fame and find out how they operated including what rules governed selection of members, how did they honor those inductees, did they have a physical presence, and so on. And some of those halls of fame are ones you’ve heard of (the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Football Hall of Fame, the NASCAR Hall of Fame), some were a natural fit for our sport (the Swimming Hall of Fame, the US Bicycling Hall of Fame) while others were regional halls of fame covering many sports, such as our own Breitbard Hall of Fame in the San Diego Hall of Champions at Balboa Park. What I quickly learned was that a hall of fame for our sport would be managed a bit differently than other sports. For instance, the US Gymnastics Hall of Fame requires that inductees either be retired from the sport or be over 30 years old. If we waited for triathletes to retire before considering them for the Hall of Fame, we would have a lot of posthumous awards because endurance sport athletes just don’t quit. And a lot of our best athletes don’t even reach their peak until they are well over 30 years old, so that rule wouldn’t work. We decided to recognize candidates in three categories: elite athletes, age group men and women, and significant contributors to the sport. Our first class of inductees was named in 2008, and included Judy Flannery (age group athlete), Jon Gray Noll (President of Triathlon Federation, the predecessor to USAT), Verne Scott (Dave Scott’s dad, who helped write rules, sanctioning guidelines, and too many other things to list here), Karen Smyers (elite athlete) and Sheila Taormino (elite athlete and Olympian in swimming, triathlon and equestrian). That first ceremony was held in Colorado Springs at the Broadmoor Hotel, and was a stellar affair. The bar was set high for all the subsequent induction ceremonies that followed. We’ve since moved the annual ceremony around to other cities, including an amazing night in San Diego in 2012 at the Bahia Hotel when we inducted Mark Allen, Ethel Autorino, Bob Babbitt, Sally Edwards, Scott Molina and Scott Tinley. Dave Scott was on hand that night, allowing us to honor the “Big Four” who really helped popularize triathlon. By the way, I have to mention the incredible amphora that Judge Jones created for the awardees. They are unlike any award I’ve ever seen and the inductees really treasure them.

Craig: The Athlete of the Year Banquet is another one of your creations.  What is that event like?

Steve: The Athlete of the Year and Multisport Awards Banquet is another one of our accomplishments that I’m very proud to have helped come to fruition. In 2011 Tim Yount came to us and discussed the possibility of a banquet to honor our athletes of the year as part of the national championship activities in Burlington, Vermont. Tim emphasized that we really had to hit it out of the park on our first go at this banquet or we would not have a second chance. We looked at possible venues for the banquet and settled on a dinner cruise on Lake Champlain. Tim and the USAT staff worked very hard to pull together the logistics with help from Chuck Graziano, Kat Donatello and I. The three of us took turns making the award presentations as the boat cruised on the lake right at sunset. We had about 125 attendees that year, and the feedback was terrific. During those first two years, we only had the Athletes of the Year as our awardees. Athletes were selected in triathlon and duathlon in overall, juniors, masters and grandmasters categories for men and women. When the national championships moved to Milwaukee in 2013, the decision was made to include our multisport winners as part of the banquet. This really put a different spin on the evening because the athlete of the year awards recognize purely athletic achievement whereas the multisport awards highlight the triathlon lifestyle. And it’s important to remember that many people come to our sport not to get on the podium, but to have a healthy lifestyle, to help them get over addiction, a personal loss or other challenges in life, or because they just enjoy the sport. Our multisport awards include Volunteer of the Year Award, Jeff Jewell Spirit Award, Military Sport Award, Most Inspirational Comeback Award, Spirit of Multisport Award and Lifetime Achievement Award. We have had some terrific keynote speakers as well, including Mark Allen and Chrissie Wellington. The attendees at that banquet in Milwaukee were really impressed with the stories behind the winners of those multisport awards, and many people told me after (and at our subsequent banquets as well) that the emotional content of that part of the evening’s presentation was what really left an impression.

Craig: What is USA Triathlon doing in the area of minority involvement?

Steve: USAT is interested in reaching out to underserved populations, including minority, youth, and women. We have been examining successful minority outreach programs that have been accomplished at the regional level, looking for those aspects that can be used at a national level. A great example is a program called “Strive To Tri” run by Tarus Nelson and his wife in Washington DC. His program involves after school and summer camps for disadvantaged youth. The program focuses on several key points: (1) how to introduce triathlon to youth; (2) how to deal with the economic pressures of the sport; and (3) how to have good participation so they keep coming back. Tarus’ program has been recognized at the county and national level. It involves 90 minute sessions, three days a week, and a six-week swim boot camp. The program is tied to USAT and helps to keep kids engaged throughout summer.  If I look around the room at any of our Tri Club meetings, I see a lot of people who look like me. We don’t have a lot of diversity in the sport. I find this especially unusual in San Diego where we have such a large Hispanic population and history. We helped create a survey to gauge the amount of outreach by regional and club organizations to underserved populations. The results of that survey are helping USAT shape our outreach programs.

Craig: What is USA Triathlon doing to educate it’s members to make smart and healthy choices in the area of anti-doping?

Steve: We are very concerned about doping and drug use in our sport, both from a race safety perspective and from a healthy lifestyle perspective. One challenge that we see is the legalization of marijuana. While certainly not a performance enhancing drug, marijuana is still a banned substance according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Because triathlon is an Olympic sport and USAT is the national governing body of that sport, we fall under the WADA and USADA guidelines. Marijuana is legal in many states and probably will be legalized in more states soon, yet it is still a banned substance under the rules that we must follow. It’s important to understand that when we talk about banned substances, they are banned “in competition”. That means the morning that you drive to the race, when you compete in a race, and when you drive home, you are “in competition”. We are not interested in criticizing or regulating anyone’s personal choices about lifestyle. There’s also a concern about the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as testosterone supplements by age group athletes, again in part because it impacts fair competition and in part because of health risks. Drug testing of competitors is expensive and the administrative/chain of custody process is very challenging, thus we need to find more cost-effective ways of dealing with this issue. I’m part of a task force that is evaluating initiatives that USAT can take to educate the membership. Anyone interested in looking at materials that are available right now for anti-drug education can go to the USADA website and view the free training available there.

Craig: What are some of your favorite destination races?

Steve: Lavaman on the Big Island! I’ve competed in the Waikoloa Lavaman twice and highly recommend it as a destination race. And wow, what a party at the finish line! I would fly over there for Lavaman every year if I could afford it. I also have great memories from Strawberry Fields (Oxnard), Vineman 70.3 (Sonoma wine country) and Lake Stevens 70.3 (near Seattle); sadly those races have been retired. Our USAT National Championship races are also a must for anyone looking for a challenging and fun destination race. The locations get moved around every couple of years, which I think is great. Most of our national championship races do not require qualification; in other words, you can just register for the race and compete, but remember that the level of competition in these events is far above what we experience here at local races.

Craig: I have raced USA Triathlon National Championships 16x’s in my career.  I love that event and wish more TCSD members would join in on the fun.  Nationals is in Omaha August 12-13.  Why would you recommend racing Nationals?

Steve: You can’t find a better venue for a high-quality race with outstanding competition than one of our national championships. The vibe of National Championship weekend is amazing, and you will really get pushed by top age group athletes at these races! The national championship you mention in Omaha is for Olympic and Sprint distance triathlon. We also have national championships for duathlon at Bend, Oregon; for Clydesdales and Athenas at Grand Rapids in June; for Youth and Juniors at West Chester, Ohio in August; for aquathlon at Austin, Texas in October; for aquabike and long course triathlon at Miami in November; and many other championship races. Just go to the USAT website and click on Events, then National Championships and you’ll see the full list with locations, dates, and links for registration. Our club has been very well represented at all the championship races every year, and we have a lot of members, like you Craig, who qualify for Team USA and represent the US at the world championship races.

Craig: You have done a lot of racing over the years.  What have been some of the funnier things you have been a part of?

Steve: During one of the first years that I competed in the Spring Sprint, I managed to put my helmet on backwards before I got out on the bike course. I didn’t realize I had done it and as I passed people and got funny looks I assumed it must’ve been because I was really doing well in the race.  It was only after the race when I saw the photos that the proof of my mistake was revealed. I still laugh about it a lot. I also did a minor goof while doing a trail race that helped come up with this piece of advice: Don’t wear your triathlon shoes with speed laces for an off-road race! During the Mission Trails Xterra race last year, I was wearing my triathlon shoes and when I stepped in a muddy spot the shoe stayed put, the speed laces gently let my foot slip out and I kept on running with just a sock on my foot. I had to turn around, fish my shoe out of the mud, hop around on one foot while putting the shoe back on, all while a sea of people were running around me. And of course, I was laughing the whole time. We can’t take our sport too seriously, almost none of us are getting paid to do it.

Craig: Who have been the most influential people in your life?  And what have been the most influential experiences you have had?

Steve: My Mom and Dad of course, for encouraging our participation in sports and outdoor activities when we were growing up. My siblings provided me with plenty of competition, and I’m laughing as I think of how competitive we made everything. In my business career I was lucky to have a couple of great mentors. In my late 20’s I worked for an aerospace company with Dan Curry, who showed through example and action how a person could be a great leader without being an overbearing bully. In my 40’s I had a fantastic mentor, Bob Schlesinger, who taught me a lot about building and growing a business, and whose advice I still hear sometimes in the back of my head. I’m lucky to have known my best friend Joe Bollinger for over 40 years, he’s always been there for me through thick and thin. And of course my wife Heather, my better and smarter half who has helped me have a rich, joyful life.

Craig: Who would you like to thank for your involvement in triathlon?

Steve: I’ve been blessed with a wealth of great friends who I’ve met through triathlon. At the top of that list has to be Chuck Graziano and Tim Yount, two of the best people you could ever meet. Many of the people I want to recognize are TCSD members, including Bill Dusting, Tony Berg, Charlie Szentisi, Bob Babbitt, Gary Sowell, and of course no list like this would be compete without mentioning Gerry Forman. I have to thank my coach for over a decade, Sergio Borges. And none of this would be possible without the love and support from my wife Heather, who has been there all the way, encouraging me, acting as my support crew, and giving me a big smile every time I finish a race.

Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you change?

Steve: I would like to see some way to reduce the barriers that many people face when looking at triathlons, including the financial hurdle (equipment costs, travel expenses, high race entry fees). Another barrier that many people face is access to training facilities especially swimming pools, and with that swimming lessons. Many children face a lack of after school programs and cuts in funding for athletic programs. Some of these things that we take for granted are out of reach for a large number of people who could potentially join our sport.

Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?

Steve: I would like to keep racing for as long as I’m physically able and as long as it’s fun. I’m very fortunate to have good health and good supportive friends and family. And if by some chance I ever qualify for Kona or another world championship, that would be the icing on top of the cake.

Craig: Steve, thank you so much for sharing your story.  You have done so much for our sport.  The USAT and TCSD are both lucky to have you.  Keep up the great work!  Good luck keeping your shoes on during your trail runs and with all your other lofty goals.

Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach.  Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or

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LA Tri Series – Championship

Craig (2nd place) and Dominique Chipot (3rd place)

TCSD friend Chris Happ and Craig

On May 13th I raced the LA Tri Series Olympic Distance Triathlon at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas.  I had a good race as I placed 2nd out of 14 in the men’s 55-59 age group and 16th out of 212 overall finishers.  I got chicked by 2 women, 1 of whom was former 2008 Olympic triathlete and 2000 Olympic silver medalist in water polo, Julie Ertel.  There’s no shame in that!

I am finding as I age that the most important thing is just getting to the start line healthy.  With all the miles I’ve got on my body after 30+ years of racing, that is no easy trick.  I am learning to train a bit more moderately and just cruise through some workouts and save the big efforts for race day.  10 days prior to this race I hurt my neck lifting weights.  My neck has been a problem for the last 3 years.  It is particularly a problem trying to ride in the aero position on the bike.  So that’s my problem.  I’m sure the other guys my age have their own issues.  It is just a matter of learning how to manage the training to get to that start line.

Enough excuses.  On to the race!  The 1.5K (0.93 mile) swim was in a fresh water lake.  I had a good swim as I came out of the water in 3rd place in 24:20.

The 40K (24.8 miles) bike course was very challenging.  It was 3 laps of a hilly course.  My time was 1:18:07 which was the 4th best bike split and it kept me in 3rd place.  My 2017 bike time was 2:09 slower than in 2016.

The 10K (6.2 miles) run was also very challenging.  It was hilly and off road at times so I loved it.  My run split of 38:55 was the fastest run on the day.  My finish time was 2:24:27.  This was 2:09 slower than 2016 – the same delta as my bike split.

Sean Richardson was the guy who beat me.  We chatted after the race.  He was a very nice guy.  I did have a good race, but Sean smoked me by 9+ minutes.  He finished in 2:14:41.  He said this was going to be his last triathlon of the year.  I’m thinking the year has just started.

Living the life…

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TCSD Conversation: April 2017 – Monica Sberna

Monica Sberna and fiance Michael at 2014 Tri Fit Challenge in Columbus.

TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent

I had the pleasure recently of getting to know Monica Sberna, the Volunteer Coordinator for the Triathlon Club of San Diego.  Monica has a huge heart as you will see with all the money she has raised for important causes.  You are sure to enjoy her story below.

Craig: What were your sports before triathlon?

Monica: I was one of those kids that played pretty much every sport at some point growing up, but mainly just for fun as I was always good, but never truly great at any.  In high school, I competed on the track team as a sprinter and discus thrower (I know…shocker), but I was always middle-of-the-pack and did it more for the comradery than the competition.  I also played intramural broomball in college, which I loved, but sadly I haven’t found too many opportunities to play since then.

Craig: What was the driving force that got you involved with Team in Training?

Monica: Having always been physically active in something or another growing up, I found myself in a weird place when I moved to Columbus, OH for my first job and had essentially nothing to do after work.  So a co-worker at the time told me about Team in Training, one of the largest endurance sports training programs dedicated to raising money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  At the time, I had no personal connection to those affected by blood cancer; but after attending one of their info meetings, I (almost foolishly) decided that I was going to raise $2,900 to run the Nike Women’s Half Marathon out in San Francisco, CA…because it sounded like fun.  And so I trained with coaches and fellow teammates to run my first half marathon in October 2010.

After that, I was hooked!  I originally joined Team in Training for the support system (coaches and planned workouts), but this organization truly changed my life.  Working in clinical research myself, I know first-hand how important it is to help fund life-saving research.  But most importantly, I have had the privilege of meeting so many amazing individuals who have not only touched my heart, but have inspired me to do more than I ever imagined I could.  So I continued to challenge myself, completing my first full marathon in 2011 (Nike Women’s Marathon), my first century ride in 2012 (Viva Bike Vegas), and my first sprint triathlon in 2013 (Wendy’s International Triathlon) all while raising an additional $7,000 for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Craig: What was your first experience with triathlon like?

Monica: Having already signed up for the Wendy’s International Triathlon (sprint distance) through Team in Training, I decided I wanted to “get my feet wet” at a smaller triathlon to help calm some of those “first race” jitters.  So I signed up for a super sprint held at my alma mater, Miami University.  The race consisted of a 400m swim inside at the recreational center pool (serpentine fashion), followed by a 20K bike in and around Oxford, and a 5K run on Miami’s beautiful campus.  A picturesque course to say the least, had it not been a very cold, April morning in Ohio.

I remember being more nervous than I had ever been before while I was waiting to enter the pool.  And those nerves got the best of me as my swim ended up more doggie paddle than freestyle and I’m pretty sure I was the second to last swimmer out of the pool.  But I survived…only to realize in transition that I had forgot my full-fingered riding gloves I was planning to bring (now I always have a race-day checklist).  And sure enough, my fingers not only froze but went completely numb by the time I entered T2, which made trying to tie the laces of my running shoes nearly impossible.

I was so done with the race I started to cry, but my then boyfriend (now fiancé) Michael, standing helplessly outside of transition, continued to cheer me on.  So I wiped the tears from my face and started to run.  And somewhere along those 3.1 miles I suddenly came to realize that even though it wasn’t pretty, I was doing it!  I crossed the finish line with a big smile on my face and as they say, the rest is history.  I went on to complete 5 more triathlons that year, including two Olympic distances, and am so thankful to have had Michael there to cheer me on at every race I’ve done since then.

Craig: What was so special about the day you raced the 2013 Deer Creek Fall Challenge?

Monica: One of my favorite triathlon memories actually has nothing to do with the race itself.  In fact, it was actually one of my longest, most trying triathlons to date.  But a teammate of mine, Ralph, was attempting to complete his TNT Triple Crown (running, cycling, and triathlon event with TNT) all in one year, having just run his first half marathon earlier that spring.  I, on the other hand, was burned out from training and hesitant to even start the cold, late September race.  But when I showed up on race morning, Ralph, who had sprained his wrist two weeks prior, was still planning to race the Olympic distance; so of course I had no excuse.

We started the race in different waves, but as usual my swim took forever and once again I was one of the last participants out of the water.  So the goal at that point was just to catch Ralph so that I could present him with his Triple Crown at the finish line.  Easier said than done when you’ve been slacking on training, but I was determined to be there when he finished.  So I pushed myself on the bike and run in order to catch him and the hug I received when he crossed that finish line was one of my most rewarding race finishes to date.  A perfect example of how determination and passion can push you to do more than you ever thought possible.

Craig: You moved to San Diego in August 2014.  What fundraising events have you done since arriving here and what were those experiences like?

Monica: As I mentioned previously, I was very involved with fundraising for Team in Training when I lived in Ohio, so when I moved to San Diego I wanted to continue to fundraise for other organizations I felt passionate about.  So in 2015, I signed up to run the Disneyland Dumbo Double Dare as a St. Jude Hero.  That meant not only would I be running the Disneyland 10K on Saturday and Disneyland Half Marathon on Sunday, but I also committed to fundraise $2,000 for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  Still to this day, that was one of my favorite races as it was not only my first time at Disneyland, but I was able to honor 12 of my personal pediatric cancer heroes the first 12 miles, with the last 1.1 mile dedicated to all the pediatric clinical trial patients I worked with day in and day out at Rady Children’s Hospital.

Then later that year, a good friend who I had trained with for my first century ride lost his two-year battle with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and in his honor, a number of his friends and family formed The Purple TuTu Society.  While I won’t go into the reasons behind the name, this group of 38 individuals successfully raised over $92,000 for Pelotonia 2016, a two-day cycling fundraiser for the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, OH.  Unfortunately, I was not able to make the trip back to Ohio to ride with them, but I vowed to ride 100 miles once again to help honor Dan’s memory and raise money for cancer research.  So in 2016, I participated in San Diego’s own cycling fundraiser, Padres Pedal the Cause, committing to raise $1,000 to benefit local cancer research at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center, Rady Children’s Hospital, and more.

Craig: What did you learn from the century and half marathon you did on the same weekend last fall?

Monica: When I signed up to ride the 2016 Padres Pedal the Cause in honor of my friend Dan Weisenbach, little did I know it would turn out to be one of the most physically and mentally challenging weekends of my life.  Having already registered for a number of half marathons that year already, I was shocked to say the least when I learned that the event, previously held in September, had been moved to November, the day before the Silver Strand Half Marathon.   Not one to back down from a challenge though, I committed to finish both events in a test of both physical and mental fortitude, all while wearing a purple tutu in Dan’s honor.

I think the century ride for Padres Pedal the Cause was more mentally grueling than anything with over 7,151 feet of climbing in just under 10 hours.  In fact, I almost cut the route short (at the official turn-off) in fear I wouldn’t be able to finish before dusk.  But Dan was truly out there with me, telling me to keep going and that I could do it!  The Silver Strand Half Marathon the next day however was definitely a test of my physical endurance.  My body was tired and part of me wanted to give up, but the one thing I learned that day was you can truly accomplish anything you set your mind to, especially when you have someone to finish for.

Craig: How did you get involved in the Triathlon Club of San Diego?

Monica: Having already completed a number of triathlons in Ohio, one of the first things I looked for when I moved was a group I could train with out here in San Diego and Triathlon Club of San Diego seemed to be the obvious choice.  So I attended one of the Intro to TCSD meetings, which is where I first met Paula Munoz.  As acting Vice President and Secretary at the time, Paula was always looking for more people to get involved with volunteering, as we all know how involved she is herself.  So volunteering at a number of club events turned into assisting the Expo Coordinator, which ultimately turned into an opportunity to revamp the volunteer program as Volunteer Coordinator.

Craig: What should we know about your current role as the Volunteer Coordinator?

Monica: TCSD is and will always be a volunteer driven organization, so the Volunteer Coordinator’s job is to help get the word out when volunteers are needed.  We have many veteran volunteers who help lead our weekly workouts, run our monthly club events, and even help publish this newsletter.  But I want members to know that we are always looking for people to help in any way they can.  Two of our biggest needs that don’t involve a ton of time commitment are helping out at our monthly club races and TCSD expo booths.  Keep an eye out for e-mails and Facebook posts asking to sign up for these events once race season gets into the full swing!

Craig: What have been some of your funnier moments in triathlon?

Monica: I’ve definitely had my fair share of triathlon blunders, from forgetting (sometimes necessary) equipment to missing bike turns; but I think my swim at the 2013 Tri Fit Challenge definitely takes the cake.  The swim for the Olympic distance of the race is set up in triangle fashion at Antrim Lake, with the top point of the triangle located at the dock where swimmers enter and exit the water.  Being a novice swimmer, as you most likely realize by now, I started at the back of my wave and took my time swimming, concentrating on trying to stay calm.

However, after swimming for a while and sighting off of what I thought was the far left buoy, I stopped for a moment after realizing that there didn’t seem to be any other swimmers around me.  So I looked up and soon realized that I was somehow in the middle of the triangle all by myself!  Considering I don’t always swim in the straightest of lines, I figured I must have drifted left after the first turn and accidentally caught the wrong buoy in my sight.  But lesson learned and from then on, I always double check that I’m sighting in the right direction.

Craig: What have been some of your favorite out of town races?

Monica: Considering I’ve done more running races than anything else, those tend to be some of my favorite.  As you can imagine, the Nike Women’s Marathon & Half Marathon in San Francisco, CA will always hold a special place in my heart as those were my first half and full marathons.  Plus, I loved wearing my Tiffany finisher necklaces for years after the races, proudly explaining where they were from when asked.  But I must say that the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon & Half Marathon (a local race at the time) is to this day one of the most emotional races I’ve ever run.

In 2012, Nationwide Children’s Hospital (where I worked at the time) became the title beneficiary for the then Columbus Marathon & Half Marathon.  And with this partnership came what is known as their Patient Champions.  Each year, a Patient Champion is dedicated to each mile of the 26.2 course, with one Angel Mile to honor those who are no longer with us.  These patients not only share their stories to help inspire those running the event, they are also out on the course the day of the race giving out high fives and hugs to any runner who needs it.

As you can imagine, this can be a huge motivating factor to keep moving forward during a physically challenging day for most runners.  This was an especially emotional experience for me as I also personally knew one of the 2012 Patient Champions, whose family was waiting with smiles and hugs at mile 18.  I remember that race for many reasons, but I definitely believe it’s the “most meaningful marathon in the country” and would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to run it.  Plus, it’s in Columbus, OH, so it’s also one of the flattest.

Craig: What are some of your favorite San Diego races?

Monica: I’ve knocked most of the half marathons in San Diego off my bucket list at this point and my favorite so far has been the San Diego Half Marathon in March 2016.  Truthfully, I can’t really put my finger on any one specific reason other than it was a fun course (only one major hill) with a great finish line and pretty sweet swag to boot!  I haven’t competed in as many triathlons, but I definitely loved the Esprit de She for obvious reasons and am sad that it will no longer be a women’s only race this year.  I think that series was a great advocate for women in triathlon and gave those just starting out a very encouraging environment to give triathlon a try.

Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over triathlon, what would you change?

Monica: I’m not sure I would change much about triathlons if I could.  For me personally, I would love shorter swims, but that’s what makes it a challenge.  Most triathletes seem to have at least one disciple they have to work at more than the others.  For me, it’s the swim, for others the run, but that’s what makes accomplishing one so much more rewarding!

Craig: What are your future endurance sport goals?

Monica: For 2017, my main goal is to complete my 30th half marathon for my 30th birthday on May 28, 2017 (technically three days before my actual birthday, but races don’t usually happen on Wednesdays).  This has been a goal of mine since I ran my 15th half marathon in September 2015 and realized that if I ran 12 half marathons in 12 months (another goal) in 2016, I could feasibly reach 30 by May 2017.  These may not be my fastest halves, but I have absolutely loved the experience completing not only 12 half marathons last year, but my Disney Coast to Coast and San Diego Triple Crown as well!

And then after that, I will be setting my eyes on my first half Ironman!  I definitely will have my work cut out for me to say the least, but I am constantly inspired by all of the triathletes here in San Diego.  But most importantly, I want to continue to try and fundraise for at least one charity event every year.  These races are always the most meaningful and I have met so many amazing people who have truly changed my life.  Cancer research will always be important to me as it’s what I do day in and day out, but I actually would like to work with other organizations such as CAF in the future.

Craig: Monica, thank you so much for sharing your story.  I wish everyone could give back half as much as you have to your community.  You are out there enjoying endurance sports and making a difference in people’s lives.  We are very fortunate to have you as a member of the TCSD.  Good luck on your quest for your 30th half marathon and that half Ironman finisher’s medal.

Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach.  Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or

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